As Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Israel Thursday, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper dropped its own atomic bombshell.
Israeli intelligence agencies have worked up an intelligence assessment that Iran has not yet decided whether to begin a military program to construct a nuclear warhead. Put in other words, Mossad believes that there is no current Iranian nuclear weapons program. Haaretz writes:
“The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb. The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon – or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.”
This is the same conclusion to which the 16 US intelligence agencies have come in 2007 and 2010. It is also consistent with what the Iranian government itself says, which is that the Iranian nuclear enrichment program is a civilian one and that Iran is not trying to construct a nuclear weapon. Likewise, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which continues to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities, has repeatedly and consistently stated that no nuclear material has been diverted from the civilian program.
Haaretz says that Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak gave an interview with the Army radio, in which he come to another surprising conclusion. Asked if Israel plans a military strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz near Isfahan, Barak replied:
“We haven’t made any decision to do this . . . This entire thing is very far off.”
I should think this assertion is pretty clear. But the journalists wanted to know what he meant by “far off.”
Barak told them,
“I wouldn’t want to provide any estimates. It’s certainly not urgent. I don’t want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen.”
It is hard to see these statements by Barak as anything but a massive climbdown by the Israeli government from its attempts to whip up war fever on the Iranian nuclear issue.
After loudly insisting ad infinitum that Iran’s nuclear program is an existential threat and saying that Iran is one to two years from having a bomb (which Israeli governments have been saying every other year for at least two decades), and hinting around that Tel Aviv plans an imminent strike on Iran, all of a sudden Iran hasn’t even decided whether to start weapons program and any Israeli decision on action is “far off.”
Why would the far right wing Likud government reverse itself like this?
It is the problem of reacting to contemporary events in real time that we just don’t have the inside story, and don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes.
But my guess is that President Barack Obama was deeply alarmed by the degree to which tensions with Iran had been ratcheted up, to the point that Tehran felt it necessary to make unrealistic threats about closing the Straits of Hormuz through which about a fifth of the world’s petroleum flows. Likewise, Washington appears to have been upset about the assassination of yet another Iranian scientist connected to the Isfahan enrichment program.
Despite Israeli attempts to spin the cancellation or postponement of US and Israeli joint military exercises as an Israeli initiative, they were more likely scotched from the American side to show displeasure or to avoid a provocation of Iran when Iran already seems pretty provoked. (Israel has much to gain and nothing to lose from conducting such joint exercises with the US army, insofar as it reinforces for the Middle East region US devotion to Israel’s security).
If I were Obama campaign chief David Axelrod, I would want to lower the temperature in the room on Iran. The Hormuz threats and the Iranian naval exercise made the oil markets jittery and put the price up. Higher oil prices are bad for presidential reelection bids. American voters, i.e. drivers, seem to think that the purpose of the president is to find and deliver to them cheap gasoline. Presidents who failed to do so, including Nixon, Ford and Carter, left the political stage under a cloud and either didn’t get or didn’t finish a second term.
Obama needs a calmer atmosphere on Iran if he is to be reelected. Whether he has has abruptly gotten the Israeli government to go along with him on this issue by using a carrot or by resorting to a stick, we cannot know at present. But he likely either threatened the Likud or promised them something they want. Part of the promise may be to keep the pressure up on Iran through the current campaign to stop outsiders from buying petroleum from Iran, by sanctioning the Iranian central bank. Starving Iran’s treasury is one gambit, though it is not my impression that most people in the protest movement will accept being manhandled that way.
First published in Juan Cole's blog.
Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
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