President Obama and his administration are desperately looking for a formula that will bridge the significant gaps that still exist with Israel on the subject of Iran. Just prior to the president’s speech on Sunday in front of 12,000-plus participants at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — and his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the following day — there are still major differences between the two countries. These differences have been exacerbated in recent weeks by ill-timed statements from senior US officials as well as a concerted media campaign to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran — at least before November’s presidential elections.
Almost every top US official, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director David Petraeus, Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and congressional leaders, has been to Israel recently, most of them reportedly in an effort to convince the Israelis of US intentions to block Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and to tell Israel that now is not the time to attack.
But American efforts have not been received well recently, especially following a Panetta “leak” published by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that Israel is “likely to attack in April, May or June,” and, even worse, Gen. Dempsey’s recent statement that an Israeli attack on Iran — which he referred to as a “rational actor” — would be “destabilizing.” Such statements are clearly designed to prevent Israel from eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat.
To top that off, just last week, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times published major articles quoting American intelligence analysts to the effect that there is no hard evidence proving Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb. The articles further angered the Israelis by citing the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which stated that Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.”
If you want to make Israeli security or foreign policy officials angry, just try mentioning this report, which, as far they are concerned, set back efforts to block Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon by years.
The Americans will now try to make up quickly for lost time by delivering a joint, agreed-upon statement with the Israelis following the meeting between the president and the prime minister on Monday. American officials are trying to “talk tough” in an effort to atone for Panetta’s and Dempsey’s lamentable statements, as well as the concerted media effort, which seemed to make much more of trying to block Israel from attacking Iran than it did of trying to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.
All the top brass are being trotted out: US Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told reporters that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict. “What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area,” he said. According to other reports, “Pentagon officials said military options being prepared start with providing aerial refueling for Israeli planes and also include attacking the pillars of the clerical regime, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Qods Force, regular Iranian military bases and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.” Unfortunately, this only begs the question: weren’t these options already prepared?
Dempsey is trying to recant his comments as well. “There’s no group in America more determined to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon than the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the general told the House Budget Committee this week. “I can assure you of that.” He also told a Senate panel that he did not counsel Israel against attacking Iran over its nuclear program. “We’ve had a conversation with them about time, the issue of time,” he said.
But it’s not only timing that is the issue — it’s a fundamental disagreement as to the point at which the Iranian program must be stopped. According to reports, Obama Administration officials have suggested that the trigger for military action should be a decision by the Iranians to enrich uranium beyond a current level of 20 percent to a weapons-grade 85 or 90 percent.
But US and Israeli intelligence officials agree that such a decision would be hard to detect until sometime after it was made. And for Israel, that’s way too far down the line and too unclear. Who would determine if the Iranian decision had been made? Maybe it’s already been made? And maybe enrichment to weapons-grade level could come sometime after the development of other crucial components, i.e. warheads, triggers and delivery systems?
And finally there is the overriding question of American resolve — specifically that of the president. According to almost every report, all the discussions thus far have failed to dispel Israeli doubts over President Obama’s willingness to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from going nuclear. To wit, the Administration fought tooth and nail the sanctions bill that was ultimately passed in late December.
How the president responds to Israeli fears on Iran in the next few days will also be crucial for his re-election campaign. No doubt Obama will provide sure-to-be-polite AIPAC participants with a well-crafted speech emphasizing US and Israel security cooperation. Still, it won’t be a “pushover” crowd that he can lull with well-placed liberal vignettes, like the ones he spun recently at the Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Obama will also have likely learned his lessons from the past, and with an eye toward November he will be — as opposed to almost every other occasion — on his best behavior with the Israeli prime minister. But if the US and Israel cannot bridge some very basic understandings about Iran’s intentions and a bottom line as to military intervention, a joint statement that is anything other than clear and unequivocal will send negative ripples throughout the Jewish community, where Obama’s support in some places is already shaky.