Israel's Threat Against Iran: How Netanyahu and Barak Stoked a War Scare to Pressure the U.S.

It's unclear whether Israel was bluffing or not, but the threats forced the Obama administration to ratchet up sanctions, new study says

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Barak with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Tel Aviv, 2011.
Barak with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Tel Aviv, 2011.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The dramatic U-turn made by the Trump administration on the Iranian nuclear deal, culminating in the May announcement that the United States was pulling out of the Vienna Accord, once again ramped up tensions between Washington and Tehran. With mutual threats between the two countries and assumptions that the United States intends to encourage regime change in Iran, scenarios of a regional war are again being envisioned, a war that could also involve Israel.

The risk of that seems low at this time, but precisely because of this it is interesting to examine the events of the beginning of this decade, in which the Netanyahu government threatened to attack nuclear sites in Iran on its own, and urged the Obama administration to impose severe international economic sanctions, which eventually led to the signing of the Vienna Accord in July 2015.

Dr. Daniel Sobelman, today a lecturer on international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researched this period in his post-doctoral work at Harvard. In an article published last week in the Texas National Security Review, Sobelman (who was once Haaretz’s Arab affairs correspondent), summarized his conclusions, which were also based on interviews with senior Israeli and American officials who were involved in contacts with Iran in those years. Among them were former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.

Barak with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the White House, 2012.Credit: Paul J. Richards / AFP

Focusing on the years 2011–2012, Sobelman surveyed Israeli efforts to persuade the United States that it was seriously considering a unilateral assault, intending to lead Washington to take a harsher stand against Iran, and in so doing serve Israel’s interests. Did Israel really plan to attack Iran? Sobelman, like journalists and researchers who have examined this question in the past (and some were themselves involved in it), did not reach an unequivocal conclusion. But some of his interlocutors conceded that preparations were serious and that the United States conducted extensive surveillance of Israel to determine its intentions.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak, Sobelman writes, intentionally created a panic of war to improve Israel’s bargaining abilities with the United States, which feared that a regional war would harm American interests. The pair sought a specific and reliable American commitment to stop Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capability, which was more than what President Barack Obama had pledged until then. Despite the close ties between Israel and the United States, their interests did not overlap when it came to Iran. From 2011, the U.S. conducted secret talks with Iran through Oman. Israel leaked word of the talks in order to disrupt them. Sobelman quotes Barak as saying: “We knew quite a bit about the informal, indirect contacts between the Americans and the Iranians . . . I was very concerned that the American tone was not sufficiently clear so as to bring the Iranians to a decision.”

The tension between the United States and Israel reached its peak during a year-long period that ended with the 2012 presidential election, in which Obama won a second term. Netanyahu and Barak began to speak explicitly about the possibility of an attack and Barak presented his “zone of immunity” theory, which held that in less than a year, Iran would be able to protect the uranium enrichment facility in Fordow in such a way as to reduce damage from an Israeli assault.

The U.S. feared that Israel was trying to drag it into war. American newspapers quoted senior U.S. officials warning that they did not have the “full picture” of Israeli preparations for an assault and that there was no agreement with Israel that the latter would coordinate with the United States before bombing Iran. The Americans were particularly troubled by the possibility of an Iranian attack on American forces in the Middle East in revenge for an Israeli attack.

The Americans believed that Israel could evade their surveillance and present them with a fait accompli. Panetta told Sobelman that although the Americans had good enough sources to know whether Israel was planning such an attack, “a country as sophisticated as Israel could have found ways to effectively cover up that kind of possibility, because they know that we have those kinds of sources.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of Tehran, Iran, April 8, 2008. Credit: REUTERS

Daniel Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel at that time, confirms: “We were pretty certain that if they didn’t give us warning, we would not have advance warning. They were fully capable of surprising the U.S. and give us not more than an hour or two’s notice.” Panetta added that based on Israeli assaults on the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007, “Everybody understood that when you look at the history here, Israel was a nation that if it thought that its existence was threatened in any way, it would take action with or without the United States.”

During a visit to Israel in 2011, Panetta demanded that Israel give the United States an early warning of its intentions, and was turned down. Obama, Panetta and other senior officials warned Israel of the serious implications of acting alone. Espionage agencies increased their surveillance of Israeli activities. According to reports in American newspapers, the U.S. had increased its listening in on secret conversations in Israel, was following goings-on in the Prime Minister’s Office and had identified increased readiness in air force bases, and had noted moonless nights during which the chance of an Israeli assault was greater. American cyber experts hacked into the communications of Israeli fighter jets and drones.

Shapiro sent a cable from Tel Aviv to an especially broad audience in Washington in which he warned that he could not guarantee that Israel would advise the United States of an impending assault. In December of that year, Panetta warned publicly that an Israeli assault would lead to a regional conflict that “we would regret.”

While the United States feared a trap, Sobelman wrote, Israel feared it would be abandoned. It tried to compel Obama to make a binding commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, to the point of Israel’s leveling a credible threat to use military force against Iran, the idea being to limit American flexibility. The U.S. opposed this. A series of former senior officials in the Obama administration confirmed in conversations with Sobelman that in the first months of 2012, the feeling in Washington was that an Israeli assault on Iran could be imminent.

One such official, Gary Samore, said that “with the exception of Vice President Joseph Biden, who thought it was all a big bluff,” the most senior members of the administration, including Obama and Panetta, felt “pressured” by Israel’s signals.

Barak explained that the atmosphere of an imminent assault reflected actual preparations: “The Americans were following us, watching what we were doing and what the Air Force was rehearsing.” According to Barak, Israel was working according to the assumption that the Americans were monitoring its preparations.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York, September 21, 2011. Credit: REUTERS

Barak admitted that he considered it important to be opaque about his true intentions with Israel’s security chiefs, who were opposed to an attack uncoordinated with the Americans, and Netanyahu and Barak knew that some of these officers were speaking to their American counterparts on a daily basis. The prime minister and the defense minister, Sobelman writes, kept their cards close to their chests to enhance the credibility of a threatened assault. The people around these officials did not know what Israel’s true intentions were either. The national security adviser at the time, Yaakov Amidror, said he “truly believed they were not bluffing.”

According to Tamir Pardo, he had doubts the whole way, saying, “A deception at this level requires that no more than one or two people be in the loop.” However, Pardo added “that when the prime minister ‘tells me to commence the countdown, you realize that he is not playing games with you. These things [entering a state of preparedness] have enormous implications. It’s not something he is allowed to do only as a drill.’”

In early 2012, Israel announced it was canceling a joint exercise planned with the Americans. Barak told Sobelman, “Panetta realized that Israel was serious, and asked for a two-week early warning. I told him, no. Not two weeks, and not even 24 hours. However, I did tell Panetta that we would give them a sufficiently long early warning so as to not jeopardize any American soldier in the Middle East.”

Sobelman writes that it is his impression that Barak had sent different messages to different audiences. The Israeli public was sold the excuse that the exercise had been canceled by a joint Israeli-American decision for budgetary reasons, and Barak told Army Radio in an interview that an Israeli assault on Iran was “very distant.” The Americans, however, bought the Israeli threat. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was dispatched urgently to Israel, and Panetta said in an interview with the Washington Post that an Israeli attack by spring of 2012 was highly likely.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Sobelman that he interpreted the Israeli moves with great concern as an attempt to pressure the United States. “I thought this had more to do with information warfare, if you will, information influence,” Clapper said.

The Americans, Sobelman writes, were not passive in the face of Israeli pressure. According to Samore, “Much of U.S. strategy at that time was built around ‘how do we stop the Israelis from attacking.’ In some ways, that became the more immediate objective than stopping Iran.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo in 2014.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, said at the time that an Israeli assault on Iran would upset regional stability and probably not attain its goals. Later, Dempsey added that such an attack would “delay but probably not destroy” the Iranian program.

Ambassador Shapiro says today that the Americans were sending many high-level delegations to Israel on the assumption that such visits would delay an Israeli decision. “You buy yourself three weeks at a time. The week or two before the visit, the week or two after the visit . . . It was definitely part of our strategy.”

Sobelman notes that the Americans highlighted disagreements in Israel over an assault and that President Obama encouraged President Shimon Peres to show confidence in the American commitment to Israel, and thus mount opposition to an uncoordinated attack.

Israeli threats to attack Iran dissipated around September 2012, when Barak met with senior U.S. officials during a visit to the United States, saying that he no longer supported an attack that was not cleared with Washington. Barak’s move was not coordinated with Netanyahu, but the prime minister himself, in a speech that month in the United Nations, said that there were still months left to stop Iran, thus hinting that the possibility of an imminent attack was off the agenda. In the summer of 2013, the United States and Iran were already involved in intense negotiations that would lead to the interim agreement signed that year. Thus, the threat of an Israeli assault was lifted.

According to Sobelman, the United States got what it wanted from Israel. The air force did not attack and Obama did not commit to the United States attacking Iran itself. But Israeli pressure had another important outcome: They spurred on and increased international economic sanctions, led by the U.S., which later culminated in the signing of the interim agreement and two years after that, the signing of the final nuclear agreement in Vienna.

American official Dennis Ross wrote that Israel had a major impact on the administration’s determined approach to Iran on sanctions. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns told Sobelman that Israeli pressure had accelerated the process of sanctions by about a year. Obama, Burns said, “moved at a faster pace because of the concern of a potential Israeli military strike and the very real political pressure that existed in Washington in part because of the depth of the Israeli government’s concern.” Burns said the U.S. used the threat of an Israeli attack to pressure Russia, China and the European Union to join the sanctions. The Israeli threat was “a useful tool,” Burns said.

Sobelman concludes that at the end of 2011, Israel had intentionally led the United States to believe it was going to attack Iran, a scenario that worried the administration greatly. Washington, mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, feared becoming involved in another, needless war. This is where the bargaining began between the two allies. Israel managed to persuade the Americans to ratchet up sanctions against Iran. But the fact that an Israeli assault did not happen also shows the bargaining power of the stronger of the two countries.

The study concludes with a quote from Panetta: “There’s nothing like a military attack to get your attention. So, I’m sure that it heightened activity both in terms of what we were trying to do militarily as well as what the administration was looking at diplomatically... There was this effort to push on these other buttons to see if there might be a diplomatic solution to that threat.”

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