A nuclear-armed Iran wouldn't necessarily constitute a threat to Israel's continued existence, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo reportedly hinted earlier this week.
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On Tuesday evening, Pardo addressed an audience of about 100 Israeli ambassadors. According to three ambassadors present at the briefing, the intelligence chief said that Israel was using various means to foil Iran's nuclear program and would continue to do so, but if Iran actually obtained nuclear weapons, it would not mean the destruction of the State of Israel.
"What is the significance of the term existential threat?" the ambassadors quoted Pardo as asking. "Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That's not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely."
The ambassadors said Pardo did not comment on the possibility of an Israeli military assault on Iran.
"But what was clearly implied by his remarks is that he doesn't think a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel," one of the envoys said.
Pardo's remarks follow lively a public debate in recent months over a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. One of the figures at the center of this public debate has been Pardo's predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan. Dagan has argued that Israel should only resort to military force "when the knife is at its throat and begins to cut into the flesh." He has also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, accusing them of pushing for an Israeli attack on Iran, and warned that such an assault would have disastrous consequences.
For the past several years, Netanyahu has characterized a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel. The prime minister has even compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler and argued that Iran should be treated as Nazi Germany should have been dealt with in 1938, just before World War II. In contrast, Barak said in April 2010 that Iran "was not an existential threat at the moment," but warned that it could become one in the future.
In the cabinet, Netanyahu and Barak have been the leading proponents of a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. So far, however, they have not managed to convince a majority of either the "octet" forum of eight senior ministers or the diplomatic-security cabinet to support their position.
In related news, The Daily Beast website reported yesterday about one aspect of the disagreement between Israel and the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue. It said that Washington and Jerusalem are discussing "red lines" for Iran's nuclear project that, if crossed, would justify a preemptive strike on the nuclear facilities.
The website's defense reporter, Eli Lake, wrote that Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, lodged an official protest with the American administration following a speech a few weeks ago by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Saban Forum, in which the American defense chief warned of the consequences of an attack on Iran. The Daily Beast reported that Panetta's remarks infuriated the Israel government and that Oren was directed to lodge the protest.
A short time later, the White House conveyed a message of reassurance to Israel that the Obama administration has its own red lines for attacking Iran, so there is no need for Israel to act unilaterally. The Israeli protest was also followed by a shift in Panetta's rhetoric: In an interview with the American television network CBS, Panetta said the United States would not take any option off the table with regard to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The crux of the disagreement between the two countries revolves around the question of to what extent Iran has managed to develop clandestine sites for uranium enrichment. As a result, Israel and the United States are having a hard time settling on common "red lines."
Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Daily Beast that "if Iran were found to be sneaking out or breaking out [toward obtaining nuclear weapons], then the president's advisers are firmly persuaded he would authorize the use of military force to stop it." However, he added, "when the occasion comes, we just don't know how the president will react."