U.S., Israel at Odds Over Iran Nuke Program Intelligence
August 11, 2012
The White House expressed confidence Friday that American intelligence will know if Iran escalates its nuclear program in a sprint to build an atomic bomb—a day after Israel's defense minister warned that the allies might not know "in time" to prevent it.
"We have eyes, we have visibility into the program," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. "We feel confident that we would be able to detect a break-out move by Iran towards the acquisition of a nuclear weapon."
"We believe there continues to be the time and space to pursue this course," Carney said, referring to punishing American and international economic sanctions on the Islamic republic. "It is the best course of action to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. We take no options off the table, and we consult with our allies all the time about the situation in Iran with regards to this program."
But Carney's professed confidence about the quality of the information regarding Iran's nuclear program, widely seen by American and Israeli officials as an attempt to acquire the ability to build a nuclear weapon, appeared to conflict sharply with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's just a day earlier.
Barak told Israel Radio that news reports of a new American intelligence assessment that Iran has made surprising progress towards a nuclear weapon makes it "less clear and certain that we will know everything in time about their steady progress toward military nuclear capability."
Israel has warned that it views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence and reserves the right to use military force against Tehran's atomic program. Carney's reference to taking "no options off the table" is diplo-speak for the same thing—but where Israeli officials have been ramping up their public warnings about possible military action, their American counterparts have steadfastly insisted that there is time yet to tighten the economic vise further on Iran in hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough.
"We work very closely with our Israeli counterparts on this issue. We share information as a matter of course, and we share an assessment of where Iran is, and what its capacities are, and what the timelines look like," Carney said Friday. He noted that "international inspectors" from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency have had access to key atomic sites in Iran.
"It is our firm belief that there is time and space to pursue the diplomatic option that includes an extremely, and increasingly, aggressive sanctions, includes diplomatic isolation, and international condemnation," he said.
Mitt Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of being weak in the face of Iran's defiance of international pressure—but has not spelled out a policy that differs in any meaningful way from the incumbent's approach. Still, aides to the president are mindful of the potential political dimension in attacks claiming that there is daylight between the United States and Israel.
On Thursday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—the consensus assessment of the American intelligence community—that "Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program." The daily cited unnamed "Western diplomats and Israeli officials."
Carney declined to comment on the news report, but some American officials bristled at what they saw as a naked Israeli effort to pressure Washington into taking a more hawkish line.
If the Haaretz report is correct, the new NIE would be yet another shift in American intelligence agencies' assessment of just what Tehran is doing—though nothing so momentous as an NIE compiled in 2007. That report said Iran had halted its military nuclear program in 2003 and that there was no clear evidence that those efforts had resumed. The NIE came in the aftermath of the Iraq War intelligence debacle, in which the United States incorrectly insisted Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Iran flatly denies that it seeks nuclear weapons and insists that it aims only to bolster its ability to produce energy for civilian purposes.
Some American officials say that Iran wants the ability to build a nuclear weapon, not necessarily to actually acquire an atomic arsenal.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee in January that:
"We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."He underlined that Iran was guided by a rational "cost-benefit" approach that he said gave the international community leverage to shape Tehran's decision.
While Republicans have accused Obama of shortchanging the security of Israel—thought to be the region's only, and undeclared, nuclear power—they have also loudly complained about national security disclosures regarding an unprecedented cyberwar effort by the Obama administration to sabotage Iran's atomic program.
August 10, 2012
Israel's prime minister and defense minister would like to attack Iran's nuclear sites before the U.S. election in November but lack crucial support within their cabinet and military, an Israeli newspaper said on Friday.
The front-page report in the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth came amid mounting speculation - fuelled by media leaks from both the government and its detractors at home and abroad - that war with Iran could be imminent even though it might rupture the bedrock ties between Israel and the United States.
"Were it up to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran would take place in the coming autumn months, before the November election in the United States," Yedioth said in the article by its two senior commentators, which appeared to draw on discussions with the defense minister but included no direct quotes.
Spokesmen for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Barak declined to comment.
Yedioth said the top Israeli leaders had failed to win over other security cabinet ministers for a strike on Iran now, against a backdrop of objections by the armed forces given the big tactical and strategic hurdles such an operation would face.
"The respect which in the past formed a halo around prime ministers and defense ministers and helped them muster a majority for military decisions, is gone, no more," Yedioth said. "Either the people are different, or the reality is different."
Israel has long threatened to attack its arch-foe, seeing a mortal menace in Iranian nuclear advances and dwindling opportunities to deal them a blow with its limited military clout. Washington has urged Israel to give diplomacy more time.
The war talk is meant, in part, to stiffen sanctions on Tehran - which denies seeking the bomb and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes - by conflict-wary world powers. Israel and the United States have publicly sought to play down their differences, the latter saying military force would be a last-ditch option against Iran.
A Reuters survey in March found that most Americans would support such action, by their government or Israel's, should there be evidence Iran was building nuclear weapons - even if the result was a rise in gas prices.
But U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking re-election in November, has counseled against what he would deem premature Israeli unilateralism. He recently sent top officials to try to close ranks with the conservative Netanyahu.
Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, an old friend of Netanyahu who casts himself as a more reliable bulwark for Israeli security, also visited Jerusalem last month.
The Yedioth article said, without citing sources, that some government advisers in Israel and the United States believed a pre-November strike might "embarrass Obama and contribute to Romney's chances of being elected."
Yedioth said the aim of an initial Israeli attack on Iran would be to trigger an escalation that would draw in superior U.S. forces - but described Barak as dismissive of this theory.
"He believes that America will not go to war, but will do everything in its power to stop it. It will give Israel the keys to its emergency (munitions) stores, which were set up in Israel in the past. Israel needs no more than this," Yedioth said.
Netanyahu, apparently trying to avoid being seen as meddling in U.S. politics, has voiced gratitude for cross-partisan support of Israel in Washington, while insisting his country remains responsible for its own security.
Haaretz, an influential liberal Israeli newspaper, quoted an unnamed senior official in the Netanyahu government as saying the Jewish state - widely assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal - potentially faced a greater danger from Iran than on the eve of its 1967 war with several Arab neighbors.
That thinking seems to be gaining ground domestically.
A poll published on Friday by the mass-circulation Maariv daily found that 41 percent of Israelis saw no chance of non-military pressure on Iran succeeding, versus 22 percent who thought diplomacy could work.
While 39 percent of Maariv's respondents said dealing with Iran should be left to the United States and other world powers, 35 percent said they would support Israel going it alone as a last resort - up from previous polls that found around 20 percent support for the unilateral option.