Israel’s deliberations on Iran military strike
Aug 17, 2012
August 17, 2012
Number 08/12 #05
This Update deals with the currently very intense discussion in Israel about the possibility of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, as sparked by reports in the Israeli press last week that said that PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were close to making a decision and were pushing for military action as soon as this October.
First up is an interview on the significance of the Israeli debates from veteran American Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross. He argues that the latest moves by Barak and Netanyahu are intended both to prepare international opinion, but more importantly, Israeli public opinion, for the reality that a strike may become necessary fairly soon. He notes that the Israelis see the Iranians as simply playing for time, despite the sanctions and while Ross does not believe Israel is actually on the verge of a final decision, he does conclude that the odds of an Israeli decision to conduct a strike are increasing. For the rest of what Ross has to say, CLICK HERE. Backing up Ross’s claim that no final decision has yet been made in Jerusalem is former Israeli National Security Advisor Uzi Dayan, as quoted in the New York Times.
Next up, Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner looks at the five key questions that have to be asked in the Israeli debate about whether a military strike would be strategically justified and the complexities that have to be considered in answering them. These are: How dangerous is a nuclear Iran?; Can Iran be stopped without force?; Can Israel wait if it gets assurances that the US will do what’s necessary?; Can Israel act without US support?; Can Israel launch a successful operation?. He offers his own answers to each, while admitting that these are hardly the only answers one can come to, but also frankly acknowledges some of these things are just unknowable except to those in possession of the complete intelligence picture. For this good summary of the key issues in the Israeli debate in a nutshell, CLICK HERE. Another discussion of the considerations Israeli leaders will have to make in considering a strike on Iran comes in a paper from former Military Intelligence chief Gen.(res.) Amos Yadlin (shorter summary of this paper here).
Finally, this Update offers a news story on the intelligence that may have triggered the latest round of furious discussion and speculation in Israel – revelations that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in Washington concludes that Iran “has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.” The Haaretz story notes that the new NIE means that US and Israeli intelligence now essentially agree on the advanced state of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Moreover, this agreement stands in contrast to the situations after the NIE of 2007, which insisted, strongly contrary to Israeli estimates, that it was not proven Iran had restarted its weapons research after they were halted in 2003. For this story in full, CLICK HERE. Commenting on the Intelligence, Israeli Defence Minister Barak agreed that US and Israeli assessments of Iran were now very similar, but also said the intelligence is becoming more difficult to assess, increasing the urgency to find a resolution.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Top scholar of Iran Reuel Marc Gerecht has an important and detailed look at the biography and worldview of Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and how its affects Iran’s diplomacy on the nuclear issue.
- Historian Benny Morris argues that an Israeli strike is warranted because Iran must be stopped at all costs.Meanwhile, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren argues that a strike would be worth it even if the only result was a delay in Iran’s nuclear program.
- A Hezbollah leader says the purpose of the Iranian nuclear program is to “finish off” Israel.
- Polling shows Israelis dubious of a military strike on Iran without US support.
- Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, who is currently visiting Australian, offers some remarkable facts about Israel.
- Turkish TV censors John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the London Olympics closing ceremony.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz examines the Israeli and American discussions about Iran in the context of some particularly ill-informed comment about it within Australia.
- Ahron Shapiro on some signs of accelerating India-Israel cooperation, especially with respect to environmental issues.
- AIJAC’s media release on the High Court decision refusing to allow extradition to Hungary of accused Nazi war criminal Charles Zentai.
By: Laura Rozen
Al-Monitor, Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012
Israel’s intentions on Iran are ambiguous, veteran United States-Middle East trouble shooter Dennis Ross says.
“Part of the motivation for being as public as they have been is to motivate the rest of world,” Ross, who served as the top Obama White House Iran strategist from 2009 to the end of 2011, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.
“The second reason is to condition the rest of the world not to be surprised if or when they are going to act militarily,” Ross said. “And to get the Israeli public ready as well.”
“That doesn’t mean that they have made a decision. It’s not about to happen tomorrow.” Ross continued. “If it happens tomorrow, it’s rather late in terms of getting the Israeli public ready. But I do think it means one cannot just dismiss it. Those who say it is just a bluff are misreading.”
But while Ross did not discount the prospect that Israel may do it, he warned, as he has in the past that, while “you have military means, you don’t have a military solution” to the Iran nuclear program. “You have to look at what the day-after strategy is going to be.”
Ross now serves as a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and occasionally advises the White House and NSC. He spoke to Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen on August 14.
Al-Monitor How do you read the notable uptick in Israeli rumblings about possible fall action against Iran?
Ross I think you have to look at what Israeli leaders are saying publicly. If you look historically, when the Israelis struck Osirak [in Iraq in 1981] or Syria [in 2007], they didn’t talk about it. Those were each single targets, not widespread.
But you also have to look at what Israel has done the last few years. The reasons they have been very public are two-fold. First, to motivate the rest of world to do much more [to pressure Iran]. It’s hard to believe the Europeans would boycott Iranian oil, but they did. Part of the motivation for being as public as they have been is to motivate the rest of world.
The second reason is to condition the rest of the world not to be surprised if or when they are going to act militarily. And to get the Israeli public ready as well
Al-Monitor The fact that the recent flurry of reports is being trafficked in the Israeli press would suggest the primary intended audience is the Israeli public.
Ross Before, they were trying to condition the rest of the world. Now [the public discussions is] much more to prepare the Israeli public if they act. It is also to answer critics within Israel. Part of addressing these arguments is to speak to the Israeli public and those raising basic questions about it.
That doesn’t mean that they have made a decision. It’s not about to happen tomorrow. If it happens tomorrow, it’s rather late in terms of getting the Israeli public ready. But I do think it means one cannot just dismiss it. Those who say it is just a bluff are misreading things.
Al-Monitor What’s imminent in Iran’s progress or behaviour to warrant the sudden sense of urgency?
Ross I think it’s not so much that… This is not a science. And I think there is a kind of false precision that is created. It is not so much the case that in X number of days suddenly Israel is facing what [Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak calls the “zone of immunity.” The longer time goes on, certainly from Barak’s perspective, the less impact any Israeli military operation is likely to have. And so, he is, I think, looking at this from already feeling that the accumulation of [low- enriched uranium], the proliferation of facilities, the hardening of those facilities, the combination of these factors are rendering an Israeli military option less and less effective as time goes by.
Ehud Barak in particular views that process as one that is eroding the effectiveness of what Israel can do. What he is effectively trying to say, and what he has been saying for some time, this is not only recent, is that the time when Israel would have to act is approaching rapidly.
Al Monitor Barak has also repeatedly rejected the idea that Israel should outsource its security in any case to anyone else.
Ross: It’s part of the DNA. Because of their history. The failure of the US or the international community to fulfill its obligations in 1967 is very much a part of the Israeli psyche.
Al Monitor At the same time, the US and Europe have only last month implemented draconian new sanctions that Israel has been championing. There’s no way anyone could think they would get Iran to compromise in just a few weeks.
Ross: I would like to see more time [for the sanctions and diplomacy to work]. I have said it publicly. You have military means; you don’t have a military solution. You have to look at what the day-after strategy is going to be. Look at whether or not you have created the conditions to meet the needs after there would be a strike.
Al Monitor Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, is in China and Russia this week. Do we think she is trying to suss out what they would be willing to do if the P5+1 is unable to persuade Iran to accept a compromise? To be part of a possible post-strike sanctions regime to contain Iran, something you suggested last summer the US might eventually have to do?
Ross: When I wrote the piece I did [“Calling Iran’s Bluff: It’s time to offer Iran a civil nuclear program,” The New Republic, June 15, 2012), I was looking at two perspectives. To see if a deal is still possible, and if Iran was willing to accept a proposal that would offer it civil nuclear power but with limitations that would prevent a break out capability.
In other words, my suggestion was to offer a real proposal… to see if Iran would be prepared to accept it or not. The flip side of that is if [the US/P5+1] had done that [given Iran such a “go-big,” offer] and been turned down, it’s a different situation. Iran would be exposed for not really wanting civil nuclear power, but rather a nuclear weapons capability.
Al-Monitor The Iranians have the perception — as arguably do the Israelis and others, perhaps — that the White House may be in a better position to negotiate and offer a better deal only after the US presidential elections. Whether or not the perception is accurate, it seems to be a factor. And I have not heard a lot from the US to dispel that notion, if it is not accurate. Given what may be a shorter time window for diplomacy.
Ross I do think the Iranians may perceive that. You have seen the administration ramp up the rhetoric [that it will use all means to stop Iran from preventing a nuclear weapon], not only to persuade the Israelis, but also to try to persuade the Iranians. They [the Iranians] shouldn’t have the perception that the US is somehow going to have a different position after the elections. The objective is the objective. That is one of the issues here.
The Israelis look at this, and are persuaded that at this juncture, the Iranians think they can play for time. The feeling is that they are absorbing an economic cost because of that. The question, and part of what is driving the Israeli debate, is to try to affect Iranian perceptions. We live in a world where whatever you say has multiple audiences.
Al-Monitor: Maybe it’s in part bluster, but current and former Iranian officials seem genuinely unfazed to the point of mystification by the prospect of an Israeli attack. They think it either is unlikely to happen, and or would be worse for Israel in the region than for them.
Ross: I think they want others to feel that. But they are not interested in inviting an Israeli attack. And they do not want an American strike.
Al Monitor: After this recent cavalcade of senior US officials to Israel — National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — to confer on Iran and try to dissuade them from acting unilaterally, do you think the US is just now sort of resigned to the prospect that Israel may go ahead and do it?
Ross: Three high-level visits in a short period of time suggests both a determination to have the closest possible discussions on the one hand, and to be as clear as possible about what is likely to happen.
They are not only about American efforts at dissuasion. They should be read also as to try to the maximum to assess what the situation is. And number two, to understand each side’s position. Three, to speak about what needs to be done to foster a common objective, on which there is no disagreement: prevention. And the best means to achieve that.
Words also have an effect. If the Iranians think that basically the only thing they are facing is economic pressure, they look at time one way. If they begin to believe that force could possibly be used against them, their sense of timing may be different.
Al Monitor: A former Iranian diplomat recently told me that Iran will likely move to resolve the nuclear dispute by next spring.
Ross: A few days ago, [former Iranian president Hashemi] Rafsanjani said something similar… Are those things only emerging because of the economic costs [from the sanctions]? Or because they saw [the tougher] American rhetoric?
Al Monitor: So if you had to put money on ‘will they’ or ‘won’t they,’ what would you bet?
Ross: I don’t know… From the Israeli perspective, they don’t see a deal or any change in Iran’s behavior. A lot of this is putting everyone on notice, including the Iranians.
I think the odds are going up.
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by Shmuel Rosner
Jewish Journal, August 14, 2012 | 8:36 am
Should Israel attack Iran? Or should it not? The debate keeps heating up, while no one really has much to add to the well-known basic facts (see Ari Shavit for why yes, and Jeffrey Goldberg for why no – both excellent writers, both have written other versions of these same articles many times in the past).
While the public gets to hear the conflicting views of officials and former officials, it doesn’t have the required information with which to form an opinion that carries any weight. This is of course problematic. On the one hand one has to wonder: why is it that the Israeli military establishment is so up in arms against an imminent attack? What do they know that we don’t? Would we have a better way of assessing the situation had we known what “they” know? And another question: Does one trust those military officials and former officials more than one trusts Israel’s political leadership? And why?
This article is an attempt to assist all those puzzled observers. It is a guide for approaching the issue of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites in a methodological way. I’ve based it on a lot of reading, but also on several conversations and email exchanges I have had recently with some of the most knowledgeable Israelis and Americans available for such a dialogue. To make it easier to read and digest, we have divided the topics on which one must base one’s opinion into five categories – the five crucial questions that need answering. My own answers are at the end:
Question number 1: How dangerous is a nuclearized Iran?
Important clarification: dangerous to whom?
Clearly, it is better for the world and the region if Iran does not have nuclear weapons. Very few people would argue that an Iran with nuclear capability would actually contribute to stability (there are in fact very few such people). However, assuming that a nuclearized Iran is dangerous, one still has to contemplate the following: how dangerous, and dangerous to whom?
How dangerous? Is it dangerous enough to justify a long and very costly war? There are many dangerous threats, but not all justify such action. One has to try and assess these two questions:
A. Will the future damage caused by nuclear Iran be much greater than the damage of imminent war?
B. How likely is such damage to materialize? An imminent war is, well, imminent, but a future danger is fuzzier. Should Israel go to war now, because of a danger that might not occur later?
Dangerous to whom? Is it mostly to Israel? To the whole region, but not the US? To the US as well? If Iran is mostly dangerous to Israel, it is reasonable to assume that Israel will be the one most eager to act against Iran militarily. The US is Israel’s ally, but that doesn’t mean it will go to war for something that is not a crucial American interest.
Question number 2: Can Iran be stopped without using force?
Important clarification: Can we wait long enough to find out?
The Israeli government is constantly declaring that sanctions are a failure and that while Iran is hurting, it is not getting any closer to caving. In fact – Israel is saying – while the world is busy with employing more sanctions and is feeling good about doing something, the Iranians are moving forward with their program. Other Israeli and other international players are more hopeful about the sanctions. They can’t yet say that sanctions are working – since the Iranians haven’t yet caved under the pressure. But people around the world (and some in Israel as well) believe that the current course of non-violent coercion might lead to some kind of breakthrough.
So the obvious question is: Can the combination of tough sanctions and tough talk stop Iran? But this isn’t the only question. One should also consider the ticking clock as the wait for sanctions to do the trick continues. In other words: Do we have time to wait for the sanctions to work?
Here, again, one has to ask: Who’s “we” in “do we have time to wait”? While the US might have the time to wait, and only act in the case of failure, Israel – with its smaller military and more limited resources – might not have the time to wait.
Question number 3: Can Israel wait if it gets assurances that the US will do what’s necessary?
Important clarification: It there an issue of personal trust involved?
Clearly, Israel’s clock is ticking faster than that of the Americans. We’ve explained why. So the question is this: can Israel forget about its problematic clock, if the US will guarantee that no matter what happens, no matter what other countries might be saying, no matter what the circumstances might be – American force will prevent a nuclear Iran? Obviously, there are three problems with such guarantee:
1. No American leader would give such a promise.
2. Israel has no way of making sure such a promise is fulfilled (bluntly put: it has no way of punishing America if the promise is broken).
3. Israel has clarified time and again in words and deeds that it will never sub-contract its essential security (on the other hand: Israel constantly relies on American support for its security – so maybe the “we-will-defend-ourselves” mantra is no more than empty bravado?).
Hence, the secondary question comes to the fore: Would Israel change its habitual behavior and have faith in the pledge of an American president if that president was deemed trustworthy by Israelis? In other words: Does it matter if the promise is given by a President Obama, a President Romney, a President Bush, or a President Clinton – do we have to take into account a specific president when we consider this matter of attacking Iran?
Question number 4: Can Israel act without American consent?
Important clarification: What would be the price of such action?
Suppose one answers all previous questions in the negative: Israel can’t risk a nuclearized Iran, it can’t wait for the sanctions to work, it can’t trust the US president – then the question becomes: Can Israel even act when the US doesn’t want it to act? Here, there are two separate questions to be answered:
1. Can it technically do it?
2. Can it withstand the consequences of doing it?
The first question is not one that the average citizen can answer. I don’t know what the air force can do, I don’t know what the US can do, I’m not sure if the US will actively disrupt an Israeli operation if it gets underway. Can you see an American airplane trying to take down an Israeli airplane on its way to Iran? Furthermore, as one ponders the question of capabilities, one has to think not just about the initial attack but also the aftermath: Does Israel base its post-strike planning on the assumption that the US will be joining the battle later in the game – both to defend Israel but also to prevent Iran from rebuilding its sites? And what happens if the US refuses to play such role?
The second question is not necessarily easier to answer: will the US suffice with denouncing Israel, or will it retaliate is some way? A lot depends on the outcome of an attack. If it’s very successful and no harm is done to American interests, I’d expect mostly admiration from the Americans. If it goes badly, if American interests are hurt, if the crisis drags the economy down without the benefit of having tamed Iran – the damage to the relations could be serious.
Question number 5: Can Israel launch a successful operation?
Important clarification: What do we mean by “successful”?
These are the easy ones: Easy – because one has no way of knowing the answers without having all relevant information. But not so easy, because everything else begins with this basic question: if the operation can be successful, American response will not be harsh, there will be no need to rely on American promises, and no need to risk it by waiting for sanctions to work, and there is not nearly as much hesitation: a successful operation is much better than a nuclearized Iran. If success were guaranteed, the choice would be easy.
Clarification is due though: By successful, do we mean that Iranian nuclear sites are destroyed and can’t ever be rebuilt? Can’t be rebuilt for the next five years, two years, a year? Does it mean that Iran will no longer have a path to having nuclear weapons? Or do we merely mean that all the pilots return back and no retaliation is launched? Or some retaliation – but with only few casualties? Or a few hundred casualties? Successful has a different meaning to different people. Successful can only be measured against an alternative. Against the possibility that Iran will go nuclear uninterrupted.
So we have to ask: how dangerous is a nuclearized Iran?
Or did we already ask this question?
And now, my answers:
1. Very dangerous. More dangerous than the war we might have if Israel strikes Iran.
1a. More to Israel. As for the US, the case is there, but it is more nuanced and complicated to communicate.
2. I doubt it, and think a timetable should be established: if by a certain date Iran isn’t stopped, action is taken.
2a. The timetable should accommodate such concerns. I don’t have a date for you – because I don’t have the intelligence with which to make the assessment.
3. Giving such assurances might prove to be deceitful; relying on such assurances might prove to be a dumb thing to do.
3a. No, it’s not about Obama or Romney – that’s just a sideshow (this doesn’t mean that the likelihood of Obama action and Romney action is identical).
4. Maybe. Depends on the level of American insistence on preventing such action. But this refers to the initial strike – for a more consistent campaign to prevent the rebuilding of sites American involvement will be crucial (I will write more about this in the coming days).
4a. As I said: American response depends on the consequences of the action (and if you think you know for sure what’s going to happen following an attack – think again, more humbly: Did you know that Mubarak is about to be arrested and put on trial two weeks before it happened?).
5. Sorry. Can’t answer this. Go read someone who’s smart enough to pretend to know.
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National Intelligence Estimate backs Israel’s view of surprising, significant progress; 2007 NIE report claimed Iran had suspended nuclear program.
President Barack Obama recently received a new National Intelligence Estimate report on the Iranian nuclear program, which shares Israel’s view that Iran has made surprising, significant progress toward military nuclear capability, Western diplomats and Israeli officials have informed Haaretz.
This NIE report on Iran was supposed to have been submitted to Obama a few weeks ago, but it was revised to include new and alarming intelligence information about military components of Iran’s nuclear program. Haaretz has learned that the report’s conclusions are quite similar to those drawn by Israel’s intelligence community.
The NIE report contends that Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.
The NIE reports are the most important assessments compiled by the U.S. intelligence community and are submitted to the president and other top governmental officials. This NIE report was compiled by an inter-departmental team headed by director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Its contents articulate the views of American intelligence agencies.
In 2007, the NIE report on the Iranian issue included a non-classified abstract, but this time the White House decided to keep the new report’s contents under wraps. There has been no clear disclosure of the very existence of the report and its submission to Obama.
The 2007 NIE report on Iran stunned Israel, many Western countries and even some White House officials. The report maintained that Iran suspended its military nuclear program in 2003, and that there was no conclusive proof of its revival.
The report’s conclusions delivered a serious blow to the international campaign waged by Israel against the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli officials reasoned at the time that the NIE report’s conclusions were influenced by the failure of the U.S. intelligence community with regard to rumors of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’s arsenal. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American intelligence analysts concluded that Saddam Hussein had continued his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction; that assessment spurred President George W. Bush’s war plans.
But after American forces occupied Iraq, it became clear that Saddam had suspended his nuclear program, as well as his chemical weapons program. This intelligence failure sparked public criticism in the U.S.
Israeli officials reasoned in 2007 that American intelligence and defense officials were concerned that Bush would launch a war against Iran, concurrent to U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so these U.S. intelligence experts concluded in the 2007 document that a drive by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons could not be conclusively demonstrated.
In response to inquiries, Tommy Vietor, the Spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House said that he “is not going to comment on intelligence matters like this.”