Leon Panetta Ehud Barak - AFP - 02032012
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, front, embracing Defense Minister Ehud Barak upon arrival at the Pentagon in Washington on Thursday. Photo by AFP
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Though Israeli officials are deeply divided over whether Israel should attack Iran in the coming months, they are united on one point - a flood of contradictory statements about Iran's nuclear program by U.S. officials in recent weeks is undermining efforts to increase pressure on Tehran.

Many of these American statements, a senior Israeli government official told Haaretz, have led Iran to believe there is no real danger of an attack on its nuclear program, and therefore, there is no need to halt it.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak held a series of meetings on the Iranian issue in Washington this week, including with Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Next week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington, where he will discuss the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama.

U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized Israeli officials for their excessive "chatter" about Iran, but Israeli officials have the same criticism of their American peers. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and many others have all spoken about Iran recently - and their statements often contradict each other.

Sometimes, the same official has even made contradictory statements about attacking Iran within the space of a few days. At times, officials reiterate that "all options are on the table." At others, they go into detail about how damaging a military strike would be.

Panetta spoke at length at the Saban Forum three months ago about why an attack would be ineffective, and Dempsey has made similar statements recently. But during Senate testimony earlier this week, Dempsey tried to walk back on some of those statements, apparently partly in response to Israel's objections.

"If the United States doesn't broadcast determination all along the road, both in sanctions and in the threat of military action, Tehran is liable to mistakenly understand from this that 2012 is a lost year for the international community, so its nuclear program can advance as usual," the senior Israeli official said. "At the moment, largely because of the administration's contradictory messages, the Iranians assume that nothing military will happen before the U.S. presidential elections in November. They believe the administration fears an attack because of the danger that gas prices will rise, and that Israel won't move without a green light from Washington. Iran is under more pressure than before because of the sanctions, but absent a unified and determined front against it, it won't change its mind about the nuclear issue."

During Netanyahu's visit next week, Israel is hoping to get a clear answer about where Washington's red lines on the Iranian nuclear program lie. Clinton told the Senate this week that U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from "obtaining nuclear weapons." Israel wants more clarity about where exactly Washington draws the line, and what it is willing to do to prevent that line from being crossed.

On Thursday, perhaps in an effort to calm Israel down, the American media were filled with reports about America's ability to attack Iran. Bloomberg quoted Air Force commander Gen. Norton Schwartz as saying that the United States was preparing for various military scenarios involving Iran, and "you wouldn't want to be in the area" if any of them came to pass. The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is sure its bunker busters can even penetrate Iran's underground enrichment facility at Fordow.

Israel, for its part, made its desire for answers from Washington clear in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Thursday by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel's Military Intelligence who today heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Noting that America's vastly greater military capabilities give it a much longer window of opportunity for attacking Iran than Israel has, Yadlin warned that these "differing timetables are becoming a source of tension." Should Israel accede to Washington's request not to attack, he added, that would "make Washington a de facto proxy for Israel's security."

Yadlin criticized U.S. officials for warning Israel against military action without specifying how America would deal with Iran if Israel refrains. Without an "ironclad American assurance" that Washington will take military action if all else fails, he warned, "Israeli leaders may well choose to act while they still can."

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