Israeli officials reject U.S. findings on Iran

For a truly bizarre take on Iran and the Mideast, check out the December 5 Wall Street Journal opinion piece below suggesting that that perhaps the Gulf States should carry out the air strikes against Iran.McClatchy Newspapers, December 4, 2007

Israeli officials reject U.S. findings on Iran

By Dion Nissenbaum |

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials, who’ve been warning that Iran would soon pose a nuclear threat to the world, reacted angrily Tuesday to a new U.S. intelligence finding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003 and to date hasn’t resumed trying to produce nuclear weapons.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak directly challenged the new assessment in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the new finding wouldn’t deter Israel or the United States from pressing its campaign to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program, but as far as we know, it has probably since revived it,” Barak said.

“Even after this report, the American stance will still focus on preventing Iran from attaining nuclear capability,” Olmert said. “We will expend every effort along with our friends in the U.S. to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons.”

Probably no country felt more blindsided than Israel by the announcement Monday that 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, in a stunning reassessment, had concluded with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear program in 2003 and with “moderate confidence” that it hadn’t restarted that program as of mid-2007.

For years, Israel has been at the forefront of international efforts to isolate Iran, with Israeli intelligence estimates warning that Iran was on the brink of a nuclear “point of no return,” an ominous assessment that often fueled calls for a military strike.

Israeli officials also have sought to isolate Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citing his calls for Israel’s destruction and his skepticism that the Holocaust took place.

The U.S. intelligence finding said that evidence “suggests” that Iran isn’t as determined as U.S. officials thought to develop a nuclear weapon and that a diplomatic approach that included economic pressure and some nod to Iranian goals for regional influence might persuade Iran to continue to suspend weapons development.

On Tuesday morning, Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper called the U.S. findings “a blow below the belt.” An analysis in the competing Haaretz newspaper suggested that Israel might come to be viewed as a “panic-stricken rabbit” and said that the U.S. intelligence estimate established “a new, dramatic reality: The military option, American or Israeli, is off the table, indefinitely.”

“This is definitely a blow to attempts to stop Iran from becoming nuclear because now everybody will be relaxed and those that were reluctant to go ahead with harsher sanctions will now have a good excuse,” said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

The estimate created an awkward situation for Israeli leaders, who mostly tried to sidestep direct criticism of the Bush administration.

Olmert sought to focus on the report’s finding that Iran had been deterred in 2003 from pursuing its nuclear weapons program by international pressure. That, said Olmert, made continued sanctions essential.

Barak was tougher and promised that the report wouldn’t influence Israeli policy.

“We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend,” he said.

Israeli officials also highlighted where the U.S. and Israeli assessments agree.

They noted that while the latest U.S. assessment said that the earliest Iran was likely to develop enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb was 2010, Israeli assessments weren’t dramatically different, finding that Iran could develop the workings for a nuclear bomb by 2009.

Gerald Steinberg, the chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that the findings might increase the chances that Israel will attack Iran because they reduce the chances that the United States will act.

“I think it may introduce a lot of stress in the Israeli-American relationship,” he said.

But Emily Landau, the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said it would be very difficult for Israel to launch an attack without explicit support from the United States.

“If Israel were to carry out a military action, it would have to be in coordination with the United States, so if the United States is moving away from that option, it would have implications for Israel as well,” she said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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Wall Street Journal Commentary, December 5, 2007

The Gulf States and Iran

December 5, 2007; Page A25

The release of the new National Intelligence Estimate will provide more fodder for those who claim that “neoconservative ideologues” and the “Israel lobby” are overly alarmed about the rise of Iran. In reality, some of those most worried about the mullahs wear flowing headdresses, not yarmulkes, and they have good cause for concern, notwithstanding the sanguine tilt many news accounts put on the NIE.

I recently visited the Persian Gulf region as part of a delegation of American policy wonks organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Throughout our meetings in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, the top issue was Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region.

Evidence of those imperial designs is not hard to find. The Iranians are aiding extremists who are undermining nascent democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The beneficiaries of Tehran’s largess include Hamas, Hezbollah and even, the evidence indicates, al Qaeda. (Saudi officials are quietly furious that Tehran has given refuge to some suspects in the 2003 Riyadh attacks.) Iran is building up its military arsenal, and has threatened to shut down the Persian Gulf (or, as Arabs call it, the Arabian Gulf).

What particularly concerns Gulf Arabs is the possibility that Iran could go nuclear — a concern unlikely to be erased by the ambiguous findings of the new NIE. While this NIE claims that Iran stopped its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 (in direct contradiction to an NIE finding issued just two years ago that “Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons”), it concedes that “Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing.” Such a “civilian” program could be converted speedily and stealthily to military use. As the new NIE notes, “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”

That thought fills Sunni Arabs with dread. “If we accept Iran as a nuclear power that is like accepting Hitler in 1933-34,” warned one senior Arab official, using the kind of analogy that back in Washington would get him dismissed as a neocon warmonger.

On our recent trip to the Persian Gulf, we found no unanimity about how to respond to this threat, but many officials and private citizens alike called for a pre-emptive military strike. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reportedly came away from his March summit in Riyadh with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convinced that the Iranian president is dangerous and unstable. We also learned that many in the governments of Saudi Arabia and UAE privately favor military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. We were assured by numerous interlocutors in both countries that the consequences of such raids, which would probably include Iranian-backed terrorism, would be “manageable.”

The key word here is “privately.” Those states are afraid to get into a public spat with the Shiite fundamentalists across the Straits of Hormuz. They are even unwilling to impose unilateral economic sanctions that could head off a military confrontation. That’s particularly significant in the case of the UAE, which is the leading offshore commercial center for Iran.

The Iranian Business Council estimates that Iranians hold $300 billion in assets in the UAE, that 10,000 Iranian companies have offices in the UAE, and that trade between the two countries was over $11 billion last year. If the UAE were to freeze these operations, it would impose real pain on Tehran. But, unlike the U.S., it refuses to go beyond the weak sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China block more significant steps.

As for the possibility of air strikes on Iran, much as the Arabs may applaud such a move by the U.S., they do not contemplate doing so on their own. Yet they easily could. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the air forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) match up quite favorably with those of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The GCC states boast 627 combat-capable aircraft vs. only 286 for Iran, and most of the GCC aircraft are much more advanced. The GCC is well-supplied with modern American fighter-bombers — F-15s, F-16s, F-18s — and they are buying more top-of-the-line hardware all the time. Iran, by contrast, is still reliant on F-4s and F-5s acquired by the shah three decades ago, supplemented by a few more modern Russian and Chinese fighters.

Even though Iran has also been acquiring surface-to-air missiles from Russia, either the UAE or Saudi Arabia has, at least on paper, an air force capable of dealing the Iranian nuclear program a devastating blow. Of course a Gulf air armada would take heavier casualties than an American one. Gulf pilots do not have the full panoply of surveillance and electronic warfare systems needed to totally suppress air defenses. Nor do they have the “bunker buster” munitions needed to take out deep-buried facilities.

But the Gulf air forces have had years of training, and their pilots do practice alongside those from the U.S., Britain, France and other nations in the kinds of elaborate air-warfare scenarios pioneered in the “red flag” exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Some of the weaknesses of the Gulf air forces, such as lack of bunker busters, could easily be remedied by purchases from the American arsenal.

The U.S. is making those very kinds of transfers to help the Israeli Air Force develop its long-range strike capacity. We take for granted that Israel, a state of 6.4 million people with a GDP of $140 billion, could successfully attack nuclear sites located 1,200 miles away. Yet we ignore the possibility that the GCC states, with a combined population of 39 million and a GDP of $522 billion, could do at least as good of a job, operating from bases located in some cases less than 100 miles from Iran. (Iran’s population is 65 million; its GDP $193 billion.)

This is largely because the GCC states, for all their economic might, have gotten used to thinking of themselves as political and military weaklings. As much as they may resent and criticize us, they feel utterly dependent on us for their defense.

The U.S. has a major stake in defending states with so much oil, and they do provide valuable cooperation in basing and logistics. But these states can and should do more. For a start, they should take steps to integrate their armed forces, so that they can turn the GCC into a NATO-like fighting force. And if President Bush or (more likely) his successor decides to pre-empt Iran, it will be important, as in the 1991 Gulf War, to have participation, if only symbolic, from Arab states, so that the conflict cannot be cast as one pitting “Zionists” and “crusaders” against innocent Muslims.

We need to tell the Gulf Arabs that if they expect the U.S. to stand with them in the future, they need to stand with us publicly, not just privately. At the very least they need to stop kicking us in the shins, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did earlier this year by condemning as “illegitimate” the “foreign occupation” of Iraq (even though he doesn’t want us to leave).

The Saudi decision to attend the Annapolis meeting is a nice gesture in favor of the Bush administration’s newfound priorities, but it does little to address the most pressing issue confronting the Middle East. A Gulf-wide policy of getting tougher with Iran — diplomatically and economically and, if need be, militarily — would do a lot more good.

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World” (Gotham Books, 2006).

1 Response to “Israeli officials reject U.S. findings on Iran”

  1. 1 mlyon01 December 8, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Comment: Israel’s leaders, are afraid of losing the US support that makes them top dog in the Mid-East. Part of the US strategy to bring Iran to its knees is to isolate it from the other corrupt Arab regimes in the vicinity (who fear Iran’s ability to stir up Islam-based rebellion in their own countries), and to deter economic co-operation between Iran and the surrounding Arab regimes. To do this, the US has to offer the surrounding regimes something, and Israel is afraid weakening US support will be part of the deal. Read more on this outlook.

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