An Iranian couple walks down a stairway decorated with a tile mural in northern Tehran.
An Iranian couple walks down a stairway decorated with a tile mural in northern Tehran. Photo by Reuters
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Back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's ambassador to the UN in New York, the big enemy was the Soviet Union - the queen of lies that did not flinch from using any means to attain its objectives. Reagan maintained a firm strategic relationship with the U.S.S.R.; shortly after he left office in 1989, and to the surprise of all parties, the U.S. achieved victory in the Cold War, with the Soviet economy collapsing under the weight of its defense expenditures.

Now along comes Barack Obama, who in the context of his campaign against Mitt Romney has adopted President Reagan as a go-to example vis-a-vis taxation of the very wealthy. And Obama is essentially telling Netanyahu that it is feasible to do to the Iranians what Reagan did to the Russians. Break them economically, through paralyzing sanctions that will generate internal ferment, and reach agreements with them that will reduce the risk.

Trust but verify - in the finest American tradition, this is what makes it possible for citizens to base their annual tax return on their own financial assessment. But woe to anyone who is audited and found to be stealing from the general kitty. Then the law will mercilessly come down on the transgressor.

If only Netanyahu were not married to the idea of a large-scale operation against Iran, he might be able to claim copyright to the Americans' use of his slogan: If they give, they will receive. Except that is precisely what frightens him so much - that the Iranians will deliver their part on a nuclear deal, and end up receiving the other part in exchange. Earlier this week, following the conclusion of the G8 discussions at Camp David, Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, expounded on the idea on which the discussions that began this Wednesday in Baghdad were based. "I think the first round of negotiations in Istanbul [last month] was dedicated to setting the environment for talks, putting forward our views of the Iranian nuclear program," Rhodes told the White House press briefing. "And one of the things that we were heartened by is that that session very much focused on the nuclear issue. And in the past, some of these negotiations have drawn in many other issues that the Iranians wanted to talk about. But we were heartened that there was a focus on the nuclear program, and, frankly, a clear indication that the Iranians were feeling a degree of pressure from those sanctions."

Rhodes went on to say that at this week's session, in Baghdad, between Iran and representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5 +1 ) "what we expect to do is to begin a discussion around concrete confidence-building measures that could build the confidence in the international community and the peaceful nature of the Iranian program, and move them in line with their international obligations." The current emphasis, he said, was on forward movement, but not yet on reaching the goal. The aim was to bring recalcitrant Iran to its senses and back into the family of nations.

"Right now, we are certainly planning to move forward with our sanctions in coordination with our partners. That would include the EU oil embargo. If the Iranians were to fully live up to their commitments, we would obviously take that into account in reviewing our sanctions. But I think what we have said to the Iranians and publicly is that as they take steps to build confidence, we will meet that action with action, and there will be reciprocal steps taken by the international community, but it depends on how dramatic and concrete and irreversible the steps are that the Iranians take. And so right now, in the absence of that action having taken place, we're fully intending to move forward with the oil embargo."

Rhodes was then asked by a journalist, "But it doesn't sound like you're expecting anything that dramatic to happen in time to avert the oil embargo."

"Well, yes," Rhodes responded, "we think the discussions in Baghdad will be, again, a beginning of a negotiation around confidence-building steps. I'm sure that there will be concrete proposals that are discussed at that meeting. Just given the way that these negotiations go, we certainly don't expect to resolve completely the issue of the Iranian nuclear program in that particular meeting. There will have to be continued discussions going forward.

"So it's important for the Iranians to understand that given the status quo," Rhodes continued, "given where we are right now, they should fully expect and anticipate that oil embargo to go into place. And the onus is on them, frankly, to demonstrate through not just pledges but concrete actions that they're moving in a different direction before we could consider that level of sanctions easing. But we are willing, as I said, to meet them with reciprocal actions if they do begin to move in the right direction."

Why, then, does one suspect that Israel, or at least the Netanyahu government, is not exactly praying for the success of sanctions, which ostensibly have the chance to eliminate a worrisome existential threat? One gets the strong impression that these two contrasting strategies, that of Iran and that of Israel, are at broad cross-purposes. Israel is the sane state that is threatening to go insane, while Iran is the wild one that is prepared to be domesticated. And if Obama believes Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's declarations more than he does Netanyahu's warnings, until proven otherwise, this creates an extreme shift in the situation.

Heavy moral burden

Right now, Israel's hands are tied. An attack on Iran, which is now being considered, would not be justified. In fact, it would cast Israel in the role of lawbreaker. Bombing Iran would obliterate the most persuasive evidence of a weapons program and leave strong question marks. Over the next few months, then, we will be seeing an intelligence battle, in which each side will lay ambushes, waiting for the other side to commit a hasty or complacent mistake. In this battle, the Iranians will have the advantage: They can restrain themselves. In Israel, the challenge will be an internal one, pitting the tension between the team of Netanyahu and Barak, on the one hand, against the professional echelons of the intelligence community, on the other, both in terms of the facts and in how they are interpreted.

A heavy moral burden will be placed on the shoulders of Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and the director of his research division, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, to focus on data gathering and evaluation - with absolute objectivity, without allowing themselves to be lured into co-opting the prestige of Israel's military intelligence to score propaganda or diplomatic points at the behest of the political leadership.

From the American side, MI and the Mossad will face an intelligence community that is without doubt loyal to President Obama and his secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, a former CIA director. The current CIA director, former army general David Petraeus, is an expert on the Iranian file, dating from his days in Iraq and as commander of the Central Command, where he was responsible for U.S. operations in 20 countries between Egypt and Pakistan. He is friendly with the current and former IDF top brass, perhaps most of all with former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, but not necessarily with an Israel that is trigger-happy on Iran, a la Netanyahu.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was Petraeus' intelligence officer in Afghanistan and was subsequently on loan to the CIA, is the newly appointed head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence service. The newly nominated chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force is Mark A. Welsh, a general who also served in the CIA during the Panetta era. They and their colleagues, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey - who scrupulously toes the administration's line when it comes to the question of Iran's nuclear program and an Israeli operation against it - would not turn a blind eye to a clumsy Israeli fabrication of evidence.

The official line, according to which Obama, Panetta and Petraeus would have no advance knowledge of an Israeli decision to flout the administration and mount an attack on Iran, does not jive with Israel's dependence on the American missile shield. In order to complement local systems for the interception of Iran's Shahab missiles, Israel needs the ships of the U.S.'s Sixth Fleet across from Haifa and Ashdod, and the high-powered American radar deployed at the Nevatim air base, near Be'er Sheva. Without them, the home front would be overly exposed. The Iron Dome defense system is ineffective against long-range and heavy-payload missiles.

It was instructive to watch last week's disagreement between the Pentagon and Congress on the financing of Iron Dome. In their generosity toward Israel, and their expectation that the Israel supporters among their voters would compensate them with similar generosity, the legislators said that a sum of $680 million should be poured into the program, which constitutes a great deal more than Israel is even able to absorb in the next few years. At the same time, they are calling for sharp cuts to the U.S. military budget, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. The Pentagon proposed an addition of $70 million to Iron Dome, representing about one-tenth of the congressional grant. Ehud Barak expressed his gratitude to Obama and Panetta, and it is good that he did so. It would be bad if Israel were to come across as the self-serving wedge between the Pentagon and Congress.

You don't win with defense

Addressing this week's annual conference of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, Brig. Gen. Hagai Topolansky, the head of the Israel Air Force staff, cautioned against "falling in love with defense, while neglecting attack." He reasoned that "anyone who thinks it is possible to win with defense is making an egregious mistake."

The IAF's current five-year plan has its strike force acquiring F-35 stealth bombers. Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the plane, may be hot to sell it, but an administration that is furious with Israel in the wake of a foolish attack on Iran is liable to express its displeasure through a slowdown in deliveries. The entire IDF will have to quickly accustom itself to the new and changing realities in the region, such as the conversations held in Tehran by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, and the presidential elections in Egypt and the talks in Baghdad.

As it sits down to plot its new multiyear plan, the army has to have a firm idea of where the government is heading. If Netanyahu and Barak signal to the general staff that Israel will have to accept a suspension of the possible conflict with Iran, the IDF would, in the months to come, begin to divert its resources to greater preparedness in nearer arenas, such as Iran's proxies in Gaza, Lebanon and perhaps also Syria.

There is no practical capability of doing everything at the same time. If circumstances change and the top army brass do not react accordingly, the prolonged need for readiness on the Iran front, which is tying up valuable assets needed in other arenas, will end up being a very expensive whim.

The last resort

At the initiative of an organization that is working to foster closer relations between American Jews, the Pentagon and Israel, former chief of staff Dan Halutz paid visits last month to the academies of three branches of the American armed forces - the army's West Point, the navy's Annapolis and the air force's Colorado Springs. At all three, Halutz expressed what the current generation of the IDF general staff and the IAF are thinking: a military operation against the Iranian nuclear program should be a last resort.

Halutz resigned as chief of staff in 2007, prior to publication of the interim report of the Winograd Commission. Last week, a member of that commission, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, published an essay that called for an attack on Iran. At the same time, Dror wrote, Israel should adopt a regional peace initiative. Perhaps when the next war ends, Halutz will be on the commission of inquiry before which Dror will be called, to explain his support for the adventure.

History has known instances of countries that tried to outsmart inspectors conducting tours of their nuclear facilities and prevent them from entering corridors that led to the holy of holies of their operation. But not everyone is hankering for ambiguousness. As opposed to states that strove to gain nuclear capability on the sly, keeping their bombs under wraps down in the cellar, it may be that the Iranians are in fact interested in showing off their missiles, out in the open.

In the end, everything depends on Iranian behavior. Can a liar change his stripes? According to Shaul Mofaz, one of Israel's greatest experts both on Persians and on Netanyahu, there is hope.