Israel might attack Iranian nuclear sites within a year, if Iran stays the current course and the U.S. administration doesn't succeed in persuading Israel's leadership that U.S. President Barack Obama is ready to stop Iran by force if necessary, so argues Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic magazine's September cover story, obtained by Haaretz ahead of publication.
Based on dozens of interviews the Atlantic correspondent conducted in recent months with Israeli, American and Arab officials, Goldberg came to the conclusion that the likelihood of an Israeli strike has crossed the 50 percent mark. And Israel might not even ask for the famous "green light" from the U.S. - or even give couple of false pre-attack alerts, so that Washington won't try to stop the unilateral operation.
"…one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran - possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq's airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft…," Goldberg paints a possible scenario.
The repercussions of such a strike, which could include the bombing of the Iranian facilities in Natanz, Qom, Esfahan, and maybe even the Russian-built reactor in Bushehr, are less than clear, despite the endless discussions and several simulations. American experts speculate that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities will only slightly delay the nuclear program, whereas some Israelis, according to Goldberg, are a bit more optimistic, in light of the successful Israeli operations against Iraqi and Syrian reactors in the past.
The results might be dire: It's likely that the Israeli air force won't have much time to waste in Iran, as Hezbollah will probably retaliate against Israel in the North and the fighter jets will be needed there. The unilateral operation might throw relations between Jerusalem and Washington into an unprecedented crisis, and might even unleash full-scale regional war with possible economic repercussions for the whole world, not to mention the cost of human lives.
The timetable in this issue is an evasive one - the red lines were pushed back again and again, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told New York Times reporters this week: "Based on my conversations with allies, it's not so much the timing of when or how the Iranians might pursue the nuclear weapons, it's whether they do so. And so whether it would take six months, a year, or five years, it's that deep concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons that is the preoccupation of our friends and partners. And we would be pursuing the path we're pursuing regardless of any issue of timing because we think it's got the best potential for changing Iranian behavior."
According to Goldberg, for Israel the red lines are clear. The end of December is Netanyahu's deadline to estimate the success of "non-military methods to stop Iran."
And while Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, reminded Goldberg that "the expression 'All options are on the table' means that all options are on the table," - the Israeli interviewees repeatedly questioned Obama's resolve to actually do it. Some even asked Goldberg if he thought the American president was actually an anti-Semite, forcing the reporter to explain that Obama is probably "the first Jewish President" – but not necessarily Likud's idea of a Jew.
But the reply he got from one official was: "This is the problem. If he is a J Street Jew, we are in trouble."
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, stressed that "This president has shown again and again that when he believes it is necessary to use force to protect American national security interests, he has done so" - but the Israeli government might need stronger assurances.
Israel is trying to convey the message not only through the official channels - Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin visited Chicago recently to meet with the billionaire Lester Crown, one of Obama’s supporters, and asked to him to convey Israel's concerns to the American President, Goldberg reports.
"If the choice is between allowing Iran to go nuclear, or trying for ourselves what Obama won't try, then we probably have to try,” one senior Israeli official told Goldberg. Basically, the Israeli military officials agreed that it would be tough for Israel to do it alone – but on the other hand, the conclusion is Netanyahu might well risk this operation and alienation of his closest ally if he becomes convinced Iran's nuclear bomb "represents a threat like a Shoah."
Goldberg delves into Netanyahu’s relations with his father – the historical lessons he learned from Ben-Zion Netanyahu – and his eagerness not to disappoint him. He also offers a long list of Iran's verbal hostilities toward Israel to remind his readers that Israel is not personally obsessed with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I once asked Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a leading Iranian diplomat who is now Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, why the leadership of Iran persistently described Israel not as a mere regional malefactor but as a kind of infectious disease. 'Do you disagree?' he asked. 'Do you not see that this is true?'" Goldberg writes.
A recent poll conducted in six Arab countries showed a shift of opinion in favor of the Iranian nuclear weapon – views that the Arab leadership clearly doesn’t share with the street.
For Netanyahu, it's clear the bomb will not only strengthen Iran's proxies, but will undermine Israel’s status as a safe haven for Jews, embolden terrorists all over the word, and make the Arab countries more reluctant to make peace with Israel.
According to Goldberg, all the Arab officials he spoke to didn’t think that the U.S. administration truly understood Iran's ambitions. “The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran. We have to know the president’s intentions on this matter. We are his allies," one Arab minister told Goldberg.
Dennis Ross, special adviser to the U.S. president, told the Atlantic that imposing sanctions on Iran could work, despite Israeli doubts, because the Iranian government already faces public alienation. "They are looking at the costs of trying to maintain control over a disaffected public. They wanted to head off sanctions because they knew that sanctions would be a problem. There is real potential here to affect their calculus. We’re pursuing a path right now that has some potential."
Last week, Obama unexpectedly joined a White House briefing for a small group of senior reporters in Washington, raising questions whether he intended to convey some new message to Iran or hint at some new initiative. The accounts of the meetings were somewhat different, and the final impression was that there still is no answer for the question, what President Obama is ready to do if sanctions fail.
David Sanger, the New York Times reporter, heard from the White House sources that during his latest visit to Washington Netanyahu didn't list Iran as one of his top agenda items "whereas at the previous meetings when he has come here, [Iran] was the number one, two, and three issue," on the agenda, which might indicate that Netanyahu got some clear reassurances from the U.S. administration.
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