As Iran nears a nuclear arms capability, the state of play between the United States and Israel on whether or not to strike Iran before it reaches its objective was clearly defined in a scene first revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 18:
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stuck out his right hand for Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to shake to confirm they were agreed that Israel would not attack Iran; Barak refused to shake. He said he and Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu were not prepared to make this commitment because they do not believe the Obama administration is committed to keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iranian hands.
“You can live with the Iranian nuclear weapon,” Barak told Panetta. “We can’t.”
Panetta's angry reply – “We didn’t send you (Israel) Patriot missile batteries with American troops for them to be hit by Iranian missiles” – didn’t budge Barak from his position.
The American and Israeli defense chiefs knew beforehand they were heading for a difficult encounter.
On his way to Halifax, Panetta tried to soften Israel up into seeing things Washington's way by a warning:
"To go beyond (sanctions and diplomacy) raises our concerns about the unintended consequences that could result. … There are going to be economic consequences to that, that could impact not just on our economy but the world economy."
The US: Destroying Iran's nuclear program would be futile
It was noted in Jerusalem that the Defense Secretary did not bother to seek an Israeli pledge to consult with Washington before striking the Islamic Republic. He went straight to the point and said bluntly President Obama is asking you not to attack Iran.
At subsequent interviews with senior American officials, the Israelis did not mince words either: You keep on saying the military option is on the table, but then in the next breath you explain why it shouldn't be exercised. So the option is not really there at all, just empty words.
The gap between Washington and Jerusalem widened further Thursday, Dec. 8, when Israel saw the Obama administration had decided against a commando or air operation to recover, or destroy, the top secret systems of the stealth reconnaissance drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, whose capture Iran announced Sunday, Dec. 4. This US restraint strengthened the tendency in Israel to stop waiting for American action to get rid of Iran's nuclear program. Many Israelis could not understand how the US was willing to take the risk of leaving in Iranian hands the drone systems which could tell Tehran what targets were under surveillance for attack. Rather than fighting to remove them, Washington had reconciled itself to revising from scratch all its operational planning for dealing with Iran's nuclear aspirations.
This was taken in Israel as a sign that the US had withdrawn from the covert war against Iran's nuclear program for the foreseeable future and distanced itself still further from Israel's military plans for Iran.
On Wednesday, August 7,US Senators Carl Levin and John McCain talked frankly about gaps in US knowledge on Israel’s thinking and intentions regarding a strike against Iran.
Senator Levin said: “I don’t think the administration knows what Israel is going to do. I’m not sure Israel knows what Israel is going to do… Keep the bad guys guessing.”
No real military obstacles to an attack
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that the two senators put their fingers on reality.
Contrary to the picture of amity on Iran which US officials try hard to present the public, the Obama administration and the government in Jerusalem are poles apart on the pros and cons of attacking Iran's nuclear installations and its consequences.
The US defense secretary has become increasingly outspoken on this score.
In a speech at the Brookings Institute on Friday, Dec. 2, he spoke out against an Israeli attack warning that it would hold up Iran's nuclear progress by a year to two “at best" and would not be able to reach all of Iran's sensitive nuclear sites.
But when American and Israeli military pros talk in private, they admit there is no military or intelligence obstacle to stop them reaching any key site they target and destroying them all.
Where they differ is in their assessments of the consequences of a successful attack.
The Americans maintain that destroying the Iran's nuclear infrastructure and materials will not wipe the nuclear knowhow from Iranian brains. In the space of a year or two, their scientists and engineers would have their nuclear systems up and running again and back to the point in their nuclear development which the military strike had interrupted.
Israel: An attack could undermine the ayatollahs' regime
The Israeli side challenges the Americans on three points:
1. Enlisting the professional manpower for reconstituting all the nuclear teams, rebuilding the infrastructure and obtaining replacements for the nuclear equipment would take much longer that the year or two cited by Panetta. In any case, Tehran cannot be sure of finding the right people the next time round.
2. It is impossible to predict how the destruction of the national nuclear program will affect the stability of the Islamic regime in Tehran. The Americans believe it will solidify popular support behind the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards, whereas the intelligence reaching Israel points strongly to popular uprisings flaring in parts of the country.
The Islamic government would then have its hands too full with survival against widespread disaffection to have time to spare in the immediate term for restoring its nuclear program.
3. Even if they do, say the Israelis, they won't be able to go back to full operation all at once at every site, whether bombed or newly-established. It will therefore be a lot easier for a repeat assault to pick off the few functioning installations as they go on stream.
Over and above the fundamental differences on Iran, both sides agree that security and intelligence ties between the United States and Israel have never been so extensive and cordial. The Obama administration is letting Israel have all the hi-tech systems, munitions and intelligence it needs for attacking Iran. Up until now, Washington has not turned down a single Israeli request.
When politics raises its head, so too does distrust
Officials close to the White House consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ungrateful for refusing to accede to Washington's request for a commitment not to attack Iran.
Some fault Netanyahu's aides with advising him to distance himself from President Obama because they foresee the Republicans returning to the White House in a year, whoever is picked to run against him.
But other administration circles tell the US President that Netanyahu is distrustful because he doesn't believe Obama will stand by his pledge to keep Iran from becoming nuclear power.
The distrust lingers even when administration officials report that Obama is willing to go all the way with harsh sanctions including an embargo on Iran's energy exports and imports and its central bank – both of which Israel has long demanded as the only sanctions liable to bite.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, senior administration officials are now telling their Israel counterparts that it doesn't matter if Israel refrains from giving them notice of an attack on Iran because the Americans will find out anyway. Before going into attack mode, Israel would need to make extensive preparations to defend the civilian home front against potential missile retaliation by Iran and its allies, Syria, Hizballah from Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
When we see those preparations beginning, we'll know that an attack is around the corner, said one US official and we'll know what to do.