Engineering Consent For Attack On Iran?
The Obama administration is trying to assure Israel privately that it would strike Iran militarily if Tehran’s nuclear program crosses certain “red lines”—while attempting to dissuade the Israelis from acting unilaterally.
By Eli Lake
December 29, 2011 “Daily Beast” — When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opined earlier this month that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret,” the Israelis went ballistic behind the scenes. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, lodged a formal diplomatic protest known as a demarche. And the White House was thrust into action, reassuring the Israelis that the administration had its own “red lines” that would trigger military action against Iran, and that there is no need for Jerusalem to act unilaterally.
The stakes are immensely high, and the distrust that Israelis feel toward the president remains a complicating factor. Those sentiments were laid bare in a speech Netanyahu’s minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, gave on Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, in which he used Panetta’s remarks to cast doubt on the U.S.’s willingness to launch its own military strike.
Ya’alon told the Anglo-Likud, an organization within Netanyahu’s Likud party that caters to native English speakers, that the Western strategy to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons must include four elements, with the last resort being a military strike.
“The fourth element of this combined strategy is the credible military strike,” Ya’alon said, according to a recording of the speech provided to The Daily Beast. “There is no credible military action when we hear leaders from the West, saying, ‘this is not a real option,’ saying, ‘the price of military action is too high.’
Matthew Kroenig, who served as special adviser on Iran to the Office of the Secretary of Defense between July 2010 and July 2011, offered some of the possible “red lines” for a military strike in a recent Foreign Affairs article he wrote. He argued that the U.S should attack Iran’s facilities if Iran expels international nuclear weapons inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its main uranium-enrichment facility in Qom.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kroenig also noted that Iran announced in 2009 that it was set to construct 10 new uranium enrichment sites. “I doubt they are building ten new sites, but I would be surprised if Iran was not racing to build some secret enrichment facilities,” Kroenig said. “Progress on new facilities would be a major factor in our assessment of Iran’s nuclear program and shape all aspects of our policy towards this including the decision to use force.”
Until recently, current and former Obama administration officials would barely broach the topic in public, only hinting vaguely that all options are on the table to stop Iran’s program. Part of the reason for this was that Obama came into office committed to pursuing negotiations with Iran. When the diplomatic approach petered out, the White House began building international and economic pressure on Iran, often in close coordination with Israel.
All the while, secret sabotage initiatives like a computer worm known as Stuxnet that infected the Siemens-made logic boards at the Natanz centrifuge facility in Iran, continued apace. New U.S. estimates say that Stuxnet delayed Iran’s nuclear enrichment work by at most a year, despite earlier estimates that suggested the damage was more extensive.
Last week in a CBS interview, Panetta said Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon is a “red line.” White House advisers have more recently broached the subject more specifically in private conversations with outside experts on the subject.
Ironically, Panetta often is the official the Obama administration uses to engage Israel. “Panetta has been straightforward with the Israelis and they seem to appreciate that,” one senior administration official said. “The Israelis view Panetta as an honest broker.” In some ways that is why his remarks stung Netanyahu’s government so much.
Complicating matters, the Dec. 2 remarks also came at the same time a high-level delegation of Israeli diplomats, military officers and intelligence officials were in Washington for an annual meeting called the strategic dialogue. At the meeting, the Israeli side offered a new presentation on Iran’s nuclear program suggesting that Iran’s efforts to build secret reactors for producing nuclear fuel were further along than the United States has publicly said. Some of the intelligence was based on soil samples collected near the suspected sites.
A senior administration official told The Daily Beast, “Both Americans and Israelis agree that some research and design work is probably continuing in the event the Iranians decide to move ahead with weaponization.”
The intelligence disagreement is significant in part because one of the factors in drawing up red lines on Iran’s program is how much progress Iran has made in constructing secret enrichment facilities outside of Natanz, where IAEA inspectors still monitor the centrifuge cascades. In 2009, the Obama administration exposed such a facility carved into a mountain outside of the Shiite holy city of Qom. The IAEA has chastised the Iranians for not fully disclosing their work on the Qom site until the United States forced the regime’s hand.
Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo, Egypt, and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.