Middle East & North Africa
FEAR OVER ISRAEL'S THREAT TO STRIKE IRAN
By Roula Khalaf (London), Daniel Dombey (Washington), and Tobias Buck (Jerusalem)
Financial Times (London)
July 2, 2008
Less than a year ago, diplomats in the Middle East were taking bets on the likelihood of a U.S. military attack on Iran, with some assessing it at higher than 50 per cent.
Those odds subsided after the National Intelligence Estimate, the co-ordinated view of U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded in December that Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003.
But now the betting is back on.
As Tehran has accelerated its uranium enrichment programme instead of suspending it, speculation has mounted that Israel is preparing to do the job itself, possibly even before the U.S. presidential elections in November.
Suspicions were fuelled by recent Israeli military maneuvers over the Mediterranean, which some U.S. officials described as target practice for an Iran strike.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, flew to Israel over the weekend for meetings with defense officials. Although the Pentagon said little, some analysts interpreted the trip as a show of American concern over Israel’s plans for Iran.
The official Israeli line remains that the government supports the diplomatic process and that Iran is a problem for the world, not only for Israel.
“If you want to do it you don’t talk about it,” says one Israeli official. The same official also says that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has “adamantly requested that we all shut up.”
Officials point out that the Israeli government is focused on taming surrounding threats -- through a truce with Hamas, the militant group in Gaza, a prisoner exchange with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and indirect peace talks with Syria.
Although Israel is concerned that the diplomatic impasse over Iran will allow Tehran to master nuclear technology, the rather fragile state of the Israeli coalition and the cloud of a corruption probe hanging over Mr. Olmert suggest this is not the time to launch a major military offensive.
Given the limited damage likely to be inflicted on Iran, and the risk of provoking a wider war at a time when oil prices are already sky high, such threats may be designed primarily to make the world nervous and toughen diplomatic resolve.
The saber rattling has coincided with a package of incentives offered last month to Iran by world powers through Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, in order to encourage it to rein in its nuclear program.
Tehran does appear to be taking the offer more seriously than diplomats anticipated. Ali-Akbar Velayati, a prominent advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, suggested this week that Iran could accept a proposed stage of pre-negotiations, during which it would freeze the expansion of its nuclear program in return for the U.N. Security Council halting further sanctions.
Mr. Solana has yet to receive an official response to the offer. But, given the rising tensions, Iran’s strategy could well be to show sufficient flexibility and thwart possible Israeli plans until a new U.S. administration takes over.
Although Iranian officials repeatedly describe Israel as weak, it is clear that the regime is taking the risk of an offensive seriously. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, its elite military force, at the weekend spooked oil markets by declaring that retaliation for a strike could include blocking oil routes and hitting Israel with long-range missiles.
Meanwhile, one of the main questions occupying U.S. policy analysts is whether Washington would give a “green” light to Israel.
The U.S. would have to bear some of the political consequences of an Israeli bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites. Public opinion in the region would be outraged if Israel, the only nuclear power, attacked Iran, a fellow Muslim country -- particularly as no one has proved that Tehran is currently developing nuclear weapons.
There could be military consequences too. Iranian officials have warned that an attack by Israel would be treated as if it were waged by Washington, hinting that U.S. bases in the region might be targets of retaliation.
U.S. intelligence estimates, meanwhile, suggest there is still time to deal with Iran diplomatically -- Tehran would probably only be technically capable of having a weapon sometime during 2010-2015, according to the NIE.
The White House, however, could be of a different mind. Dick Cheney, vice-president, is known to be particularly tough on Iran but his influence with President George W. Bush appears to have declined.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush again emphasized “multilateral diplomacy.” He last week began the process of taking North Korea off the U.S. terrorist list, a step Mr. Cheney was unenthusiastic about.
Moreover, an Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months would introduce an unpredictable factor into the U.S. presidential election, given the uncertain consequences. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, has campaigned on more diplomatic engagement with Iran, while John McCain, his Republican rival, has taken a tougher approach.
Some analysts suggest that, unless Iran accepts the international offer on the table and begins negotiations on the fate of its nuclear program, Israel might want to act before the poll -- particularly if Mr. Obama is ahead in the campaign.
As Iran ponders its response to the diplomatic offer -- made by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany -- some Israeli experts worry that the U.S. and Israel are engaging in a dangerous game.
Alex Fishman, an Israeli analyst, says the U.S. administration -- which first leaked news of the Israeli military maneuvers -- has been using the threat of an Israeli attack to intimidate Iran.
“Israel’s strategic military force is serving as a pawn in the hands of the administration to bring this crisis to a situation of near-explosion until someone blinks first,” he wrote on Wednesday in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper.
“The problem is that threats of this type have a dynamic of their own, and they may yet be self-fulfilling. What will happen if the Iranians don’t blink?”
August 2003 IAEA inspectors find traces of highly enriched uranium at nuclear facility in Natanz
October 2003 Tehran agrees to stop producing enriched uranium
April 2005 Iran announces plans to resume uranium conversion at Isfahan
September 2005 President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad declares that Iran has an ‘inalienable right’ to produce nuclear fuel
February 2006 IAEA votes to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council
December 2006 Security Council passes resolution imposing sanctions on Iran
October 2007 U.S. passes sanctions against three Iranian banks
November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concludes Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003
June 14, 2008 E.U., plus Russia, China, and the U.S., make new offer of political, economic and security guarantees if Iran suspends enrichment
July 1, 2008 Iran says offer is acceptable ‘in principle’