In recent weeks, intense discussions have taken place in Israeli military and intelligence circles about whether or not to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Apparently, the key question in the debate was how to ensure that the United States took part in the attack or, at the very least, intervened on Israel’s side if the initial strike triggered a wider war.
Reports of these discussions have caused considerable alarm in Washington and in a number of European capitals. Some western military experts have been quoted as saying that the window of opportunity for an Israeli air attack on Iran will close within two months, since the onset of winter would make such an assault more difficult.
Concern that Israel may decide to attack without giving the US prior warning is thought to be the main reason for the visit to Tel Aviv on October 3 of the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. His aim seems to have been to rein in the Israeli hawks.
Amos Harel of the Israeli daily Haaretz summed up Panetta’s message as follows: America is standing by Israel, but an uncoordinated Israeli strike on Iran could spark a regional war. The US will work to defend Israel, but Israel must behave responsibly.
At his joint press conference with Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Panetta said: “The US is very concerned, and we will work together to do whatever is necessary to keep Iran from posing a threat to the region. But doing so depends on the countries working together.” He repeated the word ‘together’ several times. In other words, Israel should not act without an American green light.
In recent years, Israel has often threatened to attack Iran. Why has the subject been revived this time? Is Israel worried that Iran is close to acquiring the capability to manufacture a nuclear bomb? Most intelligence experts agree that Iran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons. A more likely Israeli motive is its concern that the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — may accept an Iranian offer of renewed talks.
Israel’s greatest fear is that the P5+1 will reach a compromise with Iran which would allow it to continue enriching uranium for civilian purposes. This might then lead in due course to the world agreeing to co-exist with a nuclear Iran. If that were to happen, Israel’s monopoly of nuclear weapons — a key asset in maintaining its regional military supremacy — would be lost.
Iran has, in fact, made several recent overtures to the US and its allies. When he was in New York last month to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post that Iran would stop producing uranium enriched to 20 per cent if foreign countries would provide the fuel needed for the Tehran research reactor, which makes medical isotopes. Some 850,000 Iranians are said to depend on such isotopes for cancer treatment.
Late last month, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, sent a letter to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, requesting fresh talks with the P5+1 to try to resolve the long-standing dispute. Yet another overture was made by Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi when, in an interview with Asia Times on September 29, he said that Iran was “prepared to undertake the necessary efforts to restore mutual confidence, and if there is a specific concern, it should be addressed in talks... We must look for innovative proposals.”
Fereydoun Abbasi, head of Iran’s Atomic Organisation, has invited Yukiya Amano, Secretary-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to visit Iran and inspect its nuclear facilities. ‘Our recommendation is that Amano accept this invitation... Today, the situation is that we are again ready to consider the fuel swap,’ he said. (This was the proposed swap of a large quantity of low-enriched uranium for a small quantity of 20 per cent enriched uranium for medical purposes. Amano’s IAEA board is due to meet in Vienna on November 17-18, a meeting that is keenly awaited.
Several influential voices have been urging the US to respond positively to Iran’s overtures. “Why not test Iran’s seriousness?” asked Reza Marashi in an article in the Huffington Post on September 30. Marashi is a former Iran desk officer at the US State Department and is now Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council.
In an article in the International Herald Tribune on September 29, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, and Ali Vaez, director of the Federation’s Iran Project, urged the US and its allies to take Ahmadinejad at his word. They even suggested that the western powers should provide Iran with 50 kilograms of fuel for the Tehran research reactor as a humanitarian gesture that would buy Washington goodwill with the Iranian people, while curtailing Iran’s enrichment activities.
None of these appeals is likely to be heard. US President Barack Obama has collapsed in the face of pressure from powerful pro-Israeli lobbies and a fervently pro-Israeli US Congress. As he is seeking re-election next year, we will hear nothing more of the call he made during his 2008 campaign for the need for diplomacy with Iran.
The danger is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may now seek to break out of Israel’s current political isolation by mounting a spectacular attack on Iran. Having lost Turkey and Egypt, and facing a revolt by the international community against his Greater Israel ambitions, he may think that the time was ripe to seize the initiative. His calculation may be that a lethal blow against Iran would weaken an already deeply-troubled Syria and leave Hezbollah orphaned. Israel would have killed three birds with one stone.
Will Israel seek an American green light if it decides to attack Iran or might Netanyahu believe that Obama, enslaved to Israeli interests, would have no choice but to follow suit?
According to the October 6 edition of TTU, a French intelligence bulletin, the US and Israel are planning an unprecedented joint land forces exercise next May with the goal of establishing a common ‘intervention force’ ready for action in the event of a major regional war. Admiral James Stavridis, head of Eurocom — America’s European command — paid a recent unpublicised visit to Israel for talks with General Benny Gantz, Israel’s chief of staff. According to TTU, the plan is to set up American command posts in Israel and Israeli command posts in Eurocom. Cooperation between the two powers has rarely been closer.
These are dangerous times in the Middle East.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.