During the half hour they talked at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Maryland, last Friday, Dec. 16, US President Barack Obama received from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak the latest intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Barak disclosed that Iran has started work on the assembly of a nuclear weapon and advanced surreptitiously on a program for developing a plutonium nuclear weapon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that President Obama did not fall off his chair because it confirmed the data reaching him in the last week of November. For further evidence, the RQ-170 reconnaissance drone was assigned its first flight over Iran – only to be downed on Dec. 4 by means yet to be fully clarified.
Since then, the US and Israel have resorted to alternative resources to determine whether Iran has indeed started building components for a nuclear bomb or warhead.
Then, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, Dennis Ross, until a month ago President Obama's senior adviser on the Middle East including Iran, noted that Israel had reason to be concerned about enrichment at Qom (a reference to the Fordo underground site near that religious city). He cited Iran's accumulation of low-enriched uranium, its decision to enrich to nearly 20 percent "when there is no justification for it," its hardening of nuclear sites, and other "activities related to possible weaponization" – all factors that "affect the Israeli calculus and ours," said Ross.
"Qom is important, but it is worth remembering that IAEA inspectors go there, and I would not isolate Qom and say this alone is the Israeli red-line to spur a military response.
Iran embarks on nuclear weaponization
Ross's reference to "weaponization" activities and other sites beside Qom as an Israel red line spurring a military response are firm indications that the White House knows for sure that Iran has embarked on the assembly of a nuclear weapon and that Fordo is not its only clandestine weapon development site.
Using this information, Israel calculated that Iran had drastically reduced its timeline for building a nuclear weapon from two years to six months. If Iran's rulers so decided, Iran could have an operational weapon ready to go by early June or July 2012.
Barak did not ask the US President how he intended acting on the new intelligence because the way Obama uses the Iranian nuclear issue for his re-election campaign is outside Israel's ken; the US president, for his part, did not inquire whether an Israeli strike against Iran was any nearer. He left the two questions open, commenting only that the situation was extremely serious.
So Israel's leaders don't know for sure if Obama is planning to strike Iran – either to keep a nuclear weapon out of the Islamic Republic's hands or to save his campaign for a second term as president from being trapped in a morass of manipulative Iranian tricks.
As Israel reads the situation in Tehran, Iran's leaders have gained enormous confidence from their capture of the US reconnaissance drone. They appear to believe that laying hands on American stealth technology arms them for repelling a US attack, or at least reducing to a minimum the amount of damage it would cause.
After talking to the Israeli defense minister, Obama said: “The cooperation between our militaries has never been stronger.”
Barak commented, “Both countries agree that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.”
US and Israel in sync on military action
The US president's reply to Barak came three days after they met, Monday, Dec. 19, when US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta informed CBS interviewer Scott Pelley that Iran had reached a point where they can assemble a bomb in a year – or potentially less.
Pelley: So are you saying that Iran can have a nuclear weapon in 2012?
Panetta: “It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel…
Pelley: So that they can develop a weapon even more quickly.
Panetta: On a faster track…
Pelley: Than we believe.
Panetta: That’s correct.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that this "hidden facility somewhere in Iran” was a reference by Panetta to the new intelligence data Barak had put before President Obama.
It is reasonable to assume therefore that, under the impact of this interchange, the US president authorized his defense secretary to enunciate the reversal the administration has effected in its position on a possible US attack on Iran's nuclear program – although it may not be the last such change.
Panetta accordingly dropped his former warnings of the grave consequences of an attack for US interests and the global economy and said suddenly: ‘Well, we share the same common concern. The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us and that’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it.”
Panetta's bombshell dismays Washington opponents of military strike
In other words, the "red line" for America, defined in his Brookings Institute speech of Dec. 2, has moved from free trade through Persian Gulf waters to the same groove as Israel's, namely, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran per se.
Panetta's new stance landed on Washington with bombshell force. Our Washington sources report dismay in senior US intelligence circles including CIA director David Petraeus, and in the military and defense lobby which actively opposes a US or Israel attack on Iran's nuclear program.
Pentagon officials asserted that the Defense Secretary's prediction of an Iranian nuclear bomb within a year was based on "a highly aggressive timeline" and actions which Iran has not yet taken. There was no cause to revise the timeline, they insisted: It still stood at two or three years from now.
George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, stressed the Defense Secretary had stated clearly that there was no sign Iran had made the decision to go ahead on a nuke.
Mr. Little said, “He was asked to comment on prospective and aggressive timelines on Iran’s possible production of nuclear weapons – and he said if, and only if, they made such a decision. He didn’t say that Iran would, in fact, have a nuclear weapon in 2012.”
The Pentagon official went on to argue that the International Atomic Energy Agency-IAEA was still in Iran and its inspectors had “good access to Iran’s continuing production of low-enriched uranium.”
Should Iran choose to “break out” – divert low-enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium – the inspectors could detect it. “We would retain sufficient time under any such scenario to take appropriate action,” he said.
Losing the RQ-170 did not end US intelligence efforts in Iran
According to usual rules governing such dust-ups in Washington, after the Panetta interview sounded the alarm siren, the ensuing play-down of his comments ought to have sounded the all-clear and settled the dust.
But this is not what happened.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that someone in the US capital decided not to let the opponents of an attack on Iran win the battle over the revised White House position. So the Pentagon press secretary was not allowed to push Panetta's words back into the old plenty-of-time-yet frame; nor did he get the last word.
From Afghanistan, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs, came forward Wednesday, Dec. 21 to reinforce the Defense Secretary's comments and add a new dimension:
Speaking on CNN, the general issued a warning to Iran.
“My biggest worry is they will miscalculate our resolve,” Dempsey said. “Any miscalculation could mean that we are drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world.”
The top US soldier made the first authoritative reference to the loss of the reconnaissance drone downed by Iran earlier this month, after senior Iranian intelligence and military officers claimed that with reverse engineering they had gained the stealth and fighter jet technology for repelling a US attack on their nuclear sites.
Dempsey said the loss of the RQ-170 was not the end of US efforts to figure out what Iran is doing.
"Of course we are gathering intelligence against Iran by a variety of means. It would be rather imprudent of us not to try to understand what a nation who has declared itself to be an adversary of the United States is doing.”
Two senior US visitors arrive to step up cooperation with Israel
This week, Obama took two more steps for tightening military cooperation with Israel. Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of the US’s Third Air Force, arrived to finalize plans for the biggest joint missile defense exercise the US and Israel have ever held this spring. Several thousand American soldiers will be deployed in Israel for the exercise.
It will include the establishment of U.S. command posts in Israel and IDF command posts at EUCOM headquarters in Germany – with the ultimate goal of establishing joint task forces in the event of a large-scale conflict in the Middle East.
Tuesday, Dec. 20, also saw the arrival of Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s right-hand, together with Robert Einhorn, the State Department special adviser on nonproliferation. The two came to tie up the diplomatic ends of the decisions reached by President Obama and Defense Minister Barak at their meeting in Washington.
Einhorn, the administration's top expert on Iran's nuclear activities, said just before the visit that the situation over Iran's nuclear program was becoming increasingly worrying and an urgent diplomatic solution needed to be found. "Iran is violating international obligations and norms," he said. "It is becoming a pariah state." He added: "The timeline for its nuclear program is beginning to get shorter, so it is important we take these strong steps on an urgent basis." Einhorn did not elaborate on those steps.