Countdowns have started ticking for an outbreak in 2012 of military hostilities centering on Iran.
In mid-January, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey arrives in Israel. At about the same time, Israeli command headquarters begins operating from US European Command – EUCOM in Germany, after US operational command posts were embedded in IDF General Staff, Navy and Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Thousands of US troops are already in place in Israel, equipped with THAAD systems (easily transportable Terminal High Altitude Area Defense hit-to-kill weapons) for the biggest US-Israel war game on record, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report may be brought forward to the second half of February, shortly before Iran's general election on March 2 (See separate item about the pre-vote infighting in Tehran.)
The joint US-Israeli military exercise Austere Challenge 12 was officially scheduled for April 2012. But the race for seats in the next Majlis is expected to generate another wave of military heat around the Persian Gulf before then. The US will decide whether to station a US aircraft carrier opposite the Israeli coast depending on whether a confrontation looks realistic.
US and Israeli officials make no bones about the prospective joint military exercise serving as a platform for the military concentrations needed to strike the rapidly-advancing Iranian nuclear weapon program and the regional conflagration expected to flare in its wake.
This was frankly admitted by the commander of the US Third Air Force, Gen. Frank Gorenc, when he visited Tel Aviv in December to tie up the logistical ends of the mass arrival of US troops, when he said they would stay on as long as necessary.
Iran has begun building nuke components, preparing test site
In a two-hour interview Monday, Jan. 9, Dennis Ross, until two months ago a senior Barack Obama Middle East adviser on the National Security Council and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser on Iran, told the Bloomberg editorial board in New York, that no one should doubt that President Barack Obama is prepared to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if sanctions and diplomacy fail. Obama has “made it very clear,” said Ross, that he regards a nuclear-armed Iran as so great a threat to international security that “the Iranians should never think that there’s a reluctance to use force” to stop them.
On the same day, the London Times quoted the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) think-tank as having prepared scenarios for the day after an Iranian nuclear weapons test.
The INSS military and intelligence specialists agreed in a simulation study that Tehran will conduct a nuclear test in January 2013.
Tuesday, January 10, debkafile reported from its military sources that an underground test was to be expected, similar to North Korea’s ambiguous one-kiloton explosion in 2006. This timeline indicates that Iran has already reached the stage of building the components of a nuclear bomb and preparing the site for a test.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took the opposite tack when said on the CBS news program “Face the Nation” on January 8: “The responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them (Iran) to do the right thing, and to make sure they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”
US and Israel at odds on partnership for military action against Iran
Israeli military and intelligence experts assert that not only has this decision been made, but the countdown to an Iranian nuclear test has begun.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and Washington sources report that although US-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation is broader and deeper than ever, the two are still divided on three major aspects of a potential strike on Iran's nuclear sites:
1. President Obama and his strategists insist on an exclusive US operation which keeps Israel right out of military involvement. This would leave Washington with the sole prerogative for deciding when and how the attack should take place. Considering the tight military and intelligence give-and-take between IDF and US army chiefs, the Obama administration is counting on Israel not to land on Washington's head a surprise unilateral attack on Iran.
2. US military strategists calculate Iran will retaliate for an attack with limited operations against American military targets in the Middle East, selected targets in Israel and Persian Gulf oil interests, including a partial and carefully calibrated closure of the Strait of Hormuz to warships and oil shipping.
Washington expects Israel's consent to holding back from responding to an Iranian or Iranian-inspired attack and leave the entire payback option in American hands.
American officials have been laboring this point in one encounter after another with top-level Israeli government and military officials.
Washington asks Israel to toe the line on Syria too
They fear Israeli might overreact and throw the US military campaign into unforeseen imbalance.
According to our military sources, Washington sent over large US troop contingents armed with sophisticated missile interceptors at this early date to assure the Israeli government that the US was on top of the military moves against Iran – offensive and defensive alike.
3. On the Syrian crisis, Washington and Jerusalem see eye to eye in assessing that Bashar Assad's regime cannot last more than a few months. (Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said Tuesday Israel is preparing for the massing of refugees from his Alawite sect on the Golan border). However, here, too, Washington wants Israel to adjust its timetable and military planning on the handling of Syria and the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah to US strategy.
On these three vital issues, Israel and the United States are at odds, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Jerusalem conclude..
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak alone control the levers of decision-making on Iran. They have withheld any commitment to President Obama to abandon the unilateral military option or to leave an attack on Iran solely to the United States. They do not question the US President's readiness "to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” as Dennis Ross has stressed. At the same time, Jerusalem is asking for the precise meaning of this proposition to be clarified.
Will an Iranian nuclear test be taken by Washington to mean Iran has succeeded in arming itself with nuclear weapons? Or will it be regarded by the Obama administration in the same way as the North Korean tests were treated by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama himself?
No Israeli commitment against a unilateral action against Iran
Israel's leaders, for their part, are not prepared to tolerate a nuclear Iran on the North Korean model. They suspect that this week's reports confirming that uranium enrichment up to 20 percent grade is on stream at the Fordo underground facility near Qom are a red herring, designed to draw attention away from rapidly advancing preparations for a nuclear test.
The administration considers the risks of permitting a nuclear-armed Iran to be greater than the risks of military action, said Dennis Ross Monday. He also said that if the White House abandoned the pledge to stop Iran attaining a nuclear bomb given by Obama and Bush before him, the US would lose all credibility.
But seen from Israel, these pledges and assurances do not specify when and under what circumstances the US would strike.
For all these reasons – and after standing by for years while US-led sanctions failed to throw Iran off course – the government in Jerusalem has reserved the option of a unilateral military action against its archenemy's burgeoning nuclear program.
“I wouldn’t discount the possibility that the Israelis would act if they came to the conclusion that basically the world was prepared to live with Iran with nuclear weapons,” Ross said. “They certainly have the capability by themselves to set back the Iranian nuclear program.”
This was the first time an American official frankly avowed that Israel is capable of running a military operation against the Iranian nuclear program after US officials for years insisted that the IDF lacked this capability.
Obama pushes Israel to toe the line
The strong White House condemnation of the assassination of the Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, Deputy Director of the Natanz uranium enrichment center, by two helmeted motorcyclists in central Tehran Wednesday, was angrily resented in Israel's top circles. By "absolutely" denying US involvement in the attack, Secretary of State Clinton turned the finger of blame for violence against "an innocent person" by default against Israel.
This was the first time out of four that Washington had condemned the slaying of a senior executive of Iran's nuclear weapon program. This informed Tehran that the US had disassociated itself from Israel's implied tactics. Our sources report that in Jerusalem, this departure from regular US practice was seen angrily as a message to Jerusalem, and a pressing one at that, that it would do well to toe Washington's line on Iran.