Retired CIA analyst and Co-Founder, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
In a stunning departure from recent Israeli threats to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday used an interview with Israel’s Army radio to assert that any attack on Iran “is very far off,” adding, “We haven’t made any decision to do this.”
When pressed as to whether “very far off” meant weeks or months, Barak replied: “I wouldn’t want to provide any estimates. It’s certainly not urgent. I don’t want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen.” The world should be thankful for small favors.
Even more intriguing was the phrasing that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put under its headline, “Barak: Israel ‘very far off’ from decision on Iran attack.” In a sub-head, Haaretz highlighted an equally important change in Israel’s stance regarding Iran:
“Israel believes Iran itself has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to intelligence assessment to be presented later this week to U.S. Joint Chief of Staff [Martin] Dempsey.”
Haaretz did not specify its sourcing for that information. However, if it’s correct, it puts Israel in line with senior U.S. policy and intelligence officials — like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — who have tenaciously held to the “Iran-has-not-yet-decided” judgment since it was promulgated unanimously by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in November 2007.
That National Intelligence Estimate stated up front: “This NIE does not (italics in original) assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons.” Among its declassified Key Judgments were:
“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; … Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”
If you thought that those conclusions in 2007 might be greeted in Official Washington or Tel Aviv with the sighs of relief, you would have been mistaken. Not only were the Israelis in high dudgeon, but so were President George W. Bush and — even more so — Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been persuaded to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2008.
Here’s what Bush wrote in his memoir, Decision Points: “But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”
For his part, Cheney publicly expressed his chagrin at the wobbliness of his president/protégé. The former Vice President told “Fox News Sunday” on Aug. 30, 2009, that he was isolated among Bush advisers in his enthusiasm for war with Iran.
This Time It’s Different
Before Wednesday, when Defense Minister Barak promised no imminent Israeli attack on Iran, the unholy alliance between Israeli hawks and American neoconservatives was exuding confidence that they would prevail in Washington – and also in Tel Aviv – in pressing for war with Iran.
Yet, this alliance faced two key obstacles that weren’t there when a similar coalition successfully pushed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This time, the White House and other key elements of the U.S. national security apparatus are dead set against attacking Iran or provoking an Iranian attack. They have apparently now made that clear, in unmistakable terms, to Israeli leaders.
And this time, U.S. intelligence has not been “fixed around the policy.” CIA analysts have not been badgered into falsifying their assessments to please higher-ups.
To disrupt what had appeared to be an unstoppable march toward war with Iran, gaining momentum in December and early January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta intervened with his own rendition of “Let me be clear.”
Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Jan. 8, and apparently unsure whether host Bob Schieffer would have the courage to ask the $64 question, Panetta decided to ask it himself rhetorically: “Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”
Yet, in a highly illustrative example of media hypersensitivity on this issue, PBS was not even willing to let the Defense Secretary’s comment reach the ears of the network’s listeners. Its “NewsHour” program deleted Panetta’s emphatic “no” and played only his subsequent comment:
“But we know that they are trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”
Got that? Panetta said Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, but Iran better not develop a nuclear weapon because that’s a red line for us. Clearly, Panetta was trying to be all things to all people, but he had spoken emphatically to the key question of whether Iran was “trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”
But Panetta’s declaration was so discordant from the anti-Iranian propaganda that has been pouring out of Washington’s elite opinion circles that PBS appears to have reflexively censored the Defense Secretary’s crucial assessment. After all, if Panetta was allowed to say that Iran was not working on a bomb, all the smart pundits who have been telling the American people the opposite would look rather stupid.
The word “no” also didn’t sit well in Israel. There, it appears Israeli hardliners felt that some drastic measure might be needed to stop what was shaping up as a new initiative by the Obama administration to steer the looming crisis with Iran away from the cliff, or at least from the Strait of Hormuz. Israeli hardliners fretted that the U.S. and Iran might be interested in direct talks to defuse the rising tensions. So, what could done?
On Jan. 11, just three days after Panetta’s assertion that the Iranians were not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, assassins in Tehren attached a bomb to a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iranian scientist connected with Iran’s nuclear development program. The attack killed Roshan, making him the fifth such victim in the last couple of years.
Suspicion immediately focused on Israel, which has historically engaged in cross-border assassinations of people it considers a threat. Usually in these cases, Israel offers some ambiguous semi-denial. This time, however, Israeli officials mostly swaggered. Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, posted a statement on Facebook, saying: “I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear.”
And a leak from the Israeli Parliament revealed that on Jan. 10, the day before the killing, Israeli Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that during 2012 Iran would see things happen to it “unnaturally,” a reference that Israeli defense and intelligence officials understood to mean covert actions against Iran’s nuclear program.
For months now, Israeli officials have spoken almost giddily of the “unnatural” setbacks that have plagued Iran’s nuclear program, including cyber-war attacks. Israeli press reports termed Gantz’s testimony “particularly prescient.”
Even usual apologists for Israeli violence, such as the New York Times, agreed that Israel was likely behind the “unnatural” death of Roshan. Time magazine was even more direct, citing “Western intelligence officials” in a report that said: “Like three previous Iranian scientists ambushed on their morning commute, the latest nuclear expert to die on his way to work was a victim of Israel’s Mossad.”
The Obama administration clearly was not amused by the assassination. The White House and State Department issued unusually prompt and strong denials of U.S. complicity. Panetta went so far as to say, “We have some ideas as to who might be involved. But we don’t know exactly …”
On Jan. 12, President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House took the unusual step of releasing a photo of Obama on the phone with Netanyahu. Though the White House did not disclose the details of the conversation, the Obama administration soon signaled not only its displeasure with the murder of Roshan but annoyance over what appeared to be an Israeli strategy to ratchet up tensions with Iran.
Obama’s call was followed by the strongest and most tangible move since Panetta’s statement on Face the Nation. Three days after the killing of Roshan, large-scale joint U.S.-Israeli military exercises planned for this spring were abruptly postponed, without any cogent explanation.
Amid all this, what has become clearer and clearer is that Israel’s chief objective vis-à-vis Iran is not so much thwarting a possible Iranian effort to obtain a nuclear weapon, but rather what we old-timers at the CIA used to call “government overthrow” — the current sobriquet being “regime change.”
Arguably, if the Israelis were genuinely interested in ending or limiting Iran’s nuclear program, they would probably not continue doing all they can to sabotage diplomatic efforts toward that end. A stroll down memory lane may be instructive.
Blowing Up Peace
On Oct. 1, 2009, Tehran shocked virtually everyone by agreeing to a proposal to send most (as much as 75 percent) of its low-enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel for a small reactor that produces medical isotopes. (To state what may be obvious, one needs low-enriched uranium before one can refine it to levels needed for medical research and then even higher to weapons-grade.)
In Geneva, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, gave Tehran’s agreement “in principle” to the swap plan to representatives of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The meeting was chaired by Javier Solana of the European Union. Reversing the Bush administration’s allergy to talking with “bad guys,” Obama had sent Under Secretary of State William Burns to the Geneva meeting.
A 45-minute tête-à-tête between Burns and Jalili marked the highest-level U.S.-Iranian talks in three decades. It was agreed that swap talks would resume on Oct. 19 in Vienna. Jalili also expressed Iran’s agreement to open the newly revealed uranium enrichment plant near Qum to international inspection within two weeks, which Tehran did.
Even the New York Times, which has been one of the most strident media voices against Iran, was forced to acknowledge that “if it happens, [the swap] would represent a major accomplishment for the West, reducing Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapons quickly, and buying more time for negotiations to bear fruit.”
It was at this hopeful moment when – on Oct. 18, 2009 – Jundallah, a terrorist organization supported by the Israeli Mossad and other intelligence agencies, detonated a car bomb in southeastern Iran ripping apart a meeting of top Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders and tribal leaders. Jundallah also mounted a roadside attack on a car full of Guards in the same area.
Killed in the attacks were a brigadier general who was deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards ground forces; the Revolutionary Guards brigadier commanding Sistan-Baluchistan; and three other brigade commanders. Dozens of other military officers and civilians were left dead or wounded.
Jundallah took credit for the bombings, which followed years of lethal attacks on Revolutionary Guards, policemen and other Iranian officials, including an attempted ambush of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s motorcade as he drove through the area in 2005.
The Oct. 18 attack was the bloodiest in Iran since the 1980-88 war with Iraq. It was a safe bet the Revolutionary Guards leaders went to their patron, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with telling evidence that the West cannot be trusted.
The attack also came one day before talks were to resume at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to follow up on the Oct. 1 breakthrough. The timing of Jundallah’s bombings strongly suggested that the attacks were designed to scuttle those talks.
So, instead of progress on getting Iran to surrender much of its low-enriched uranium, Khamenei issued an angry statement on Oct. 19 condemning the terrorists, who he said “are supported by certain arrogant powers’ spy agencies.”
Iran dispatched a lower-level Iranian technical delegation to Vienna for the Oct. 19 meeting, not Iran’s leading nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who stayed away as the Iranians began to raise objections that foreshadowed backsliding on their earlier willingness to part with as much as three-quarters of their low-enriched uranium.
Half a Loaf
In 2010, Brazil and Turkey tried to resurrect this deal with a new overture that was privately encouraged by President Obama. The Brazil-Turkey initiative soon won acceptance in Tehran.
On May 17, 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced success in persuading Iran to send some of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for higher-enriched uranium that would be put to peaceful medical uses.
Lula da Silva, in particular, had become very concerned that, without some quick and smart diplomacy, Israel was likely to follow up a series of escalating sanctions by attacking Iran. Mincing no words, da Silva said: “We can’t allow to happen in Iran what happened in Iraq. Before any sanctions, we must undertake all possible efforts to try and build peace in the Middle East.”
The two leaders secured an agreement on the same quantity of low-enriched uranium that had been envisioned in the Oct. 1 talks. Tehran agreed to exchange that amount for nuclear rods that would have no applicability for a weapon, but the quantity now represented about half of Iran’s supply because more had been produced in the intervening months.
Rather than embrace this Iranian concession as at least a step in the right direction, American neocons launched a political/media offensive to torpedo the deal. Though Obama had sent a private letter encouraging the leaders of Brazil and Turkey to undertake the swap negotiations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her neocon friends moved quickly to sink it. Instead, they pressed for harsher and harsher sanctions.
The Fawning Corporate Media, particularly the editorial sections of the Washington Post and the New York Times, did their part by insisting that the deal was just another Iranian trick that would leave Iran with enough uranium to theoretically create one nuclear bomb.
Focus Instead on Sanctions
With the swap deal scuttled, a perturbed Lula da Silva released the text of Obama’s encouraging letter, but Obama still acquiesced to Clinton’s demands for tougher economic sanctions against Iran. On May 18, 2010, Official Washington – and especially the neocons – had something to cheer about.
“We have reached agreement on a strong draft [sanctions resolution] with the cooperation of both Russia and China,” Secretary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making clear that she viewed the timing of the sanctions as a riposte to the Iran-Brazil-Turkey agreement. “This announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide,” she declared.
In the ensuing months, the propaganda drumbeat against Iran grew steadily louder, with dubious allegations about Iran plotting an assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington and the IAEA, under new pro-U.S.-Israeli leadership, issuing an alarmist report about Iran’s purported nuclear progress.
Congress also enacted even more draconian sanctions aimed at crippling Iran’s banking system and preventing it from selling oil, Iran’s principal source of income. Obama arranged to have waivers inserted in the sanctions legislation, meaning he can hold off imposing penalties if he feels that’s needed to protect the U.S. economy or national security.
Obama also appears to have reengaged in efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
Gen. Dempsey’s Arrival
So, that’s the backdrop for Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s talks in Israel with his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and other senior officials, beginning Thursday evening.
Given the preparatory work and Haaretz’s report that Israeli intelligence agrees that Iran has yet to decide about building a nuclear bomb, Israel may not challenge Dempsey’s expected efforts to tamp down tensions.
The Haaretz article states: “The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb. The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon – or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.”
But Dempsey’s visit bears close watching to see if the alteration in Israeli rhetoric is durable and reflected on the ground. In the past, Israel’s Likud leaders have played hardball with American leaders, often by enlisting the help of their influential allies in the United States. If “regime change” remains the real priority, then Israeli leaders won’t be likely to warm to the idea of negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program.
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