Nuclear fallout / Who's right here?
The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities by the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a report that minimizes the value of the Iranian nuclear program, is one of those developments that intelligence professionals tend to call a "formative event."
Over the last year, a certain hope has developed in Israel that the U.S. would do our dirty work for us; because what is possibly going on, quietly and secretly, between President Bush and his spiritual advisers will lead Bush to the conclusion that his supreme moral obligation is to remove the Iranian nuclear danger threatening Israel before he passes his job on to his successor.
Yesterday, from talking to a number of senior officials in the defense establishment, you could sense this hope had been buried in the wake of the report.
The top brass and senior intelligence and defense officials spent most of their day in heated meetings. At the complex intersection of two policies, intelligence and propaganda, the dilemma is now two-fold: Is Israel capable of presenting the Americans with any information that can prove to the Americans their new evaluation is wrong? And what new policy will Jerusalem need to formulate on the Iranian issue, based on the reasonable assumption the U.S. will not change its mind?
Israel has known about the report for more than a month. The first information on it was passed on to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and to Shaul Mofaz, who is the minister responsible for the strategic dialog with the Americans. The issue was also discussed at the Annapolis summit by Barak and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and it seems also between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
What surprised Israel is the sharp turn from the previous line presented by the DNI, and the fact the report was made public. Based on his short comments yesterday, it seems Barak, like Olmert, is trying to avoid open disagreement with the U.S. government.
But the issue of the NIE is expected to create tension on two levels. It will cloud the tight cooperation between the two countries intelligence agencies, since now it will no longer look as if it is only a disagreement over timing, but a fundamental disagreement over Iran's intentions. It will also cause a feeling of distress on the Israeli side, as now it will seem that the U.S. is abandoning Israel to fight alone.
The report will most likely also have an indirect effect on the Israeli-Palestinian process. If Israel no longer enjoys the full support of the Americans on nuclear matters, then Israel is likely to feel less committed to make concessions and move forward in talks with the Palestinians.
Since the military part of the Iranian nuclear project was exposed in 2003, Iran has made a huge effort to hide its tracks. In one case, the Iranians allowed the inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the site of a nuclear facility near Tehran, but when they arrived, the inspectors discovered it had simply disappeared.
The Israelis interpret the evidence to mean the Iranians have almost certainly continued to conduct their military nuclear program in secret. The Americans think that it has been frozen. This is a worrying gap; it is possible it is actually Israel that has made the mistake in such a critical matter.
The convoluted and hazy phrasings of the American report also raise the fear that someone in Washington is using the report for the ancient practice of covering his ass. On the other hand, Israel has much better reasons than the U.S. for feeling threatened by Iranian nukes, and therefore Israel needs adopt a much more strict line about the information.
So who is right? It just might possibly be the Americans. In practical terms, Israel will now have a harder time convincing the international community of its right to a military option against Tehran. The main avenue still open is increasing sanctions.