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Why Did Israel Dial It Down on Iran?

by ALI GHARIB in New York

11 Jan 2011 15:01Comments

Resetting the alarm clock for the Iranian bomb.

100718_obama_bibi_wh_465.jpg[ opinion ] One might be well advised to take Israeli predictions about the imminence of an Iranian nuclear weapon with a grain of salt as big as the Atlantic Ocean. After all, they've been wrong again and again. After spending years exhorting the U.S. to get tough with Iran -- Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu did so as recently as November -- two top Israeli officials announced recently that the West has as many as four years to confront Iran before it successfully develops a nuclear weapon.

"I don't know if it will happen in 2011 or in 2012, but we are talking in terms of the next three years," said Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon. Though Yaalon also pushed for an escalation of tactics against Iran -- the effort against the Iranian program "will include areas beyond sanctions" -- his timeframe is an undeniable and rare instance of Israel taking a little pressure off the U.S. on Iran issues.

Less than a week later, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan said Iran would not have a bomb until 2014. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported a summary of the remarks, then Reuters got exact quotes from a transcript: "Iran will not achieve a nuclear bomb before 2015, if that," said Dagan.

The 2015 date is a one-year extension of where analyst Yossi Melman put Israeli intelligence estimates last September. But Dagan went even further, warning that a military strike on Iran should be an absolute last option. "Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck," he said.

The same Reuters piece also quoted former Israeli prime minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak calling for tougher sanctions and, while keeping the "military option" on the table, adding that the diplomacy clock has not run out:

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday that "no options should be removed from the table" but that "the time is still one of diplomacy" for resolving the face-off with Iran.

"What is required is much harsher sanctions than today's," he said in a speech. "Only such paralyzing sanctions have a chance of putting the Iranian will to the test."

U.S. neoconservatives, of course, did not get the memo. Jennifer Rubin, on her Washington Post blog Friday morning, wrote that sanctions will not work, ignoring recent Israeli pronouncements altogether and hinting that Iran must be attacked to halt its nuclear ambitions:

It is precisely this difficulty [enforcing sanctions] -- and the Iranian regime's determination to plow ahead with its nuclear program despite sanctions -- that has convinced skeptics of sanctions that stronger measures are needed to disrupt the Iranians' nuclear plans.

Elliott Abrams, who just started blogging for the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged Dagan's remarks, but was a bit more circumspect in his recommendations for the new Republican House chairs of relevant committees:

They should be asking right now what more the United States and our allies can be doing to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, make our sanctions more effective, and support democratic dissidents in Iran.

Note that "stop[ping] the Iranian nuclear weapons program" is a separate priority from "mak[ing] "sanctions more effective and support[ing] democratic dissidents in Iran."

Jonathan Tobin, meanwhile, at the neoconservative flagship Commentary, decried the "limited impact of the weak Western sanctions" and called the apparently successful Western sabotage efforts "a delaying tactic." The comments by Dagan, wrote Tobin, gave the West "more time to prepare less-diplomatic methods" -- euphemism for an attack -- "of ensuring that the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran does not obtain the ultimate weapon."

But the question remains: Why would a top Israeli official make such an uncharacteristic pronouncement? Journalist Tony Karon offered this explanation in Abu Dhabi's The National:

Washington remains unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran over its nuclear program. The US defence secretary Robert Gates has long argued that the potentially catastrophic risks of such action outweigh the gains, which are temporary at best. Therein lies the problem: Israel's voters have been told, to quote Mr. Netanyahu in 2006, that "it's 1938 and Iran is Germany." So they'll expect their leaders to act if Washington doesn't. After all, the very idea of Israel is that Jews can't depend on others to save them from annihilation, so if its citizens believe that Iran is a reincarnation of Auschwitz, they will demand action.

Alarmist Israeli rhetoric may be designed to press Washington, but it potentially paints Israel's own leaders into a corner. They, too, know that Iran is not the threat painted in the more apocalyptic rhetoric. A little over a year ago, Mr Barak said publicly that "Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel," adding that "Israel is strong, I don't see anyone who could pose an existential threat."

Then again, Barak had made clear to [the Atlantic's Jeffrey] Goldberg that he believed the greatest danger was that alarm at the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon would prompt Israel's best and brightest to emigrate. If Israeli voters believe, as Goldberg suggests, that a "point of no return" was passed with the New Year and there are no air strikes in the spring, they may begin to doubt their government's ability to protect them.

But now some in the Israeli leadership are resetting the clock.

That notion -- that you can't whip up your own population into a fearful frenzy, then not do anything -- tracks with comments made in the past by top Israeli officials casting aside the "existential threat" meme. Along with Barak, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy sounded a confident note in late 2009: "It is not within the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel -- at best it can cause Israel grievous damage. Israel is indestructible."

But there are other possibilities to consider, most of them speculative. Perhaps Israel was merely gloating about its covert actions against Iran. Many mainstream commentators suggest Israel is behind the Stuxnet computer worm that damaged Iranian centrifuges as well as a campaign of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Maybe, as Jim Lobe suggested to me in a conversation, there was some kind of quid pro quo between the U.S. and Israel over the public extension of Israel's nuclear clock.

There are certainly many pawns on the board to trade between Israel and the U.S. at the moment: an Israeli settlement freeze (whether including East Jerusalem or not), the fate of imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. offer of an Israeli wish list of military hardware (as discussed in earlier failed talks on a freeze), or maybe even some sort of agreement for Israel to drop mounting preconditions for yet another round of direct talks. All are possibilities, though some quite unlikely.

It should be noted that the policy gaps between the U.S. and Israel, though in some cases significant, aren't deep enough to bely the observation that their relations remain strong. Coordination between the two countries is at a record high under Obama -- which, as Matt Duss points out, could be partially responsible for the delays in Iran's nuclear program. That these other chips are, in comparison, such small potatoes is why a deal can't be ruled out.

What is certain, though, is that Israel has taken it down a notch on Iran. With the Obama administration looking unlikely to strike Iran anyway, this will probably be a welcome development in Washington -- save, of course, for the hawks, who are still at it, full steam ahead.

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist who blogs daily on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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