The current issue of Newsweek has a must-read inside look at what drives President Obama’s Iran policy, including the ups and downs of his relations with Israel on the matter.
The article, by Newsweek writers Daniel Klaidman, Dan Ephron and Eli Lake (Lake is a former Forward correspondent), reports that Iran was the main topic of Mossad director Tamir Pardo’s secret trip to Washington two weeks ago. America is pressing Israel to give sanctions time to work before attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel worries that by that time, Iran’s nuke infrastructure will be too secure for an Israeli raid to destroy, and only America will have the capacity. Among other things, Pardo wanted to know whether America is likely to attack, how advanced its preparations are, how it will react if Israel attacks and so on.
Israel has several times sought a promise from Obama to attack if sanctions fail, but hasn’t gotten one. As a result, Israel keeps its own intentions vague. This is an improvement from the total information blackout that Prime Minister Netanyahu imposed on Washington from June to October last year, in pique over Obama’s “based on the 1967 borders” speech. Today information sharing is quite extensive, though Washington keeps a certain amount of intelligence from Israel when it fears it could enable actions that violate U.S. law, like assassinations.
Obama first discussed Iran with Israeli leaders back in 2008, while he was still a candidate, and he “impressed everyone with his determination to stop Iran from going nuclear,” Newsweek reports. His conversation with then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, however, left Netanyahu troubled that Obama “didn’t talk specifically about Israel’s security”:
Yet another embarrassment to Israel’s prime minister in his effort to drum up support for a military attack on Iran: Haaretz reports that the newly appointed director of the Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, downplayed the severity of the Iranian nuclear project, telling a closed gathering of senior Israeli diplomats that an Iranian nuclear weapon is not necessarily the “existential threat” it’s often described as being.
“What is the significance of the term existential threat?” the ambassadors quoted Pardo as asking. “Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That’s not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely.”
Remember, Pardo was appointed a year ago to replace the legendary, long-serving Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has since called a military attack on Iran “the stupidest idea I ever heard” and worried aloud that his successor wouldn’t be able to stand up against a trigger happy prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. Dagan has said he fought for years, together with the Shin Bet director and military chief of staff, to restrain the two from “adventurism.” All three security chiefs were replaced this year with newcomers who were supposed to be more compliant.
Nothing like good news to ruin an Israeli prime minister’s day. And that’s not the end of it:
There’s a sort of grim poetry in the timing of today’s news about the burning of two major CIA intelligence networks by Iran and Hezbollah. It was almost exactly 70 years ago, with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the creation of the CIA was set in motion with the birth of the wartime spy agency OSS (Office of Strategic Services), as historian Chalmers Johnson wrote in a devastating 2007 review-essay about the agency and its failures. Johnson claimed that agency “functionally came to an end” with another surprise attack on September 11, 2001. I think he called it prematurely at the time, but this time might be the real thing.
Hezbollah, it must be remembered, was responsible for one of the most devastating of the CIA’s previous counter-intelligence failures, the 1984 kidnapping and slow, horrific 15-month torture-murder of Beirut station chief William Buckley, grippingly recounted in this 2006 profile by British author Gordon Thomas.
There’s a telling hint at how a disciplined, well-run spy agency can be managed in another fresh headline, namely the Sunday night meeting where Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly patched up a ludicrous but potentially dangerous clash, apparently of his own creation, between his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.
“Have the prime minister and defense minister sealed a deal between them, one on one, to attack the nuclear reactors in Iran?” So asks Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s senior and most respected political journalist, in an article leading the top of the front page of today’s Yediot Ahronot. He writes that growing rumors to that effect have created a quiet but urgent buzz within Israel’s political and military elites. They’re also troubling foreign governments, which “have a hard time understanding what is going on here”: a fateful decision that could “seal the fate of the Jewish state” for good or ill, and yet near-total silence on the topic in the public arena.
Barnea writes that the question of whether or not to attack divides Israel’s leadership into four camps. One camp says the benefits would be slim and the risks “insane,” given Iran’s ability to bombard Israel with deadly missiles from Lebanon, Gaza and Iran itself and touch off a regional war “that could destroy the state of Israel.” This camp says it’s better to focus on international sanctions, bearing in mind that if they fail and Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, “it won’t be the end of the world” — while an Israeli attack just might be.
The second camp says there’s no rush. Iran is still at least two years away from a weapon, which leaves plenty of time to let other options play out, reserving a military attack as an absolute last resort. Barnea quotes a senior American diplomat who told him Israel should back renewed negotiations on international inspections. If and when Iran turns out to be lying, an Israeli attack will have a lot more international understanding and support, which could be crucial in determining how well Israel survives the ensuing onslaught. Some Israeli cabinet ministers subscribe to this view, and suspect that the growing pressure for an immediate attack stems from “outside motives, whether personal or political.” More on that later.