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For Israel this week, it was as if nothing had changed.
One week after an official U.S. National Intelligence Estimate effectively shrank to near zero the chances of a Bush administration military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities — or President Bush’s support for an Israeli strike — Israel continued to talk up its feasibility.
Asked about the possibility of a unilateral attack on Iran if diplomatic pressure failed to stop it from enriching uranium, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio last Friday: "No option needs to be off the table."
Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post that if sanctions do not work, "We will sit and decide whatever we have to decide."
And Benjamin Netanyahu, the popular right-wing opposition leader, told Haaretz, "We always prefer international action, led by the United States, but we have to ensure that we can protect our country with all means."
Yet an effective military strike — which would require an estimated 1,000 or more sorties against widely dispersed and strongly secured Iranian targets protected by formidable Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missiles — would at a minimum require the United States to provide Israel with secret military codes to enable its planes to safely cross Iraqi air space.
To Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States," that is only part of a much bigger problem.
"Israel is now in a state of strategic paralysis," he told a Manhattan symposium sponsored by the Century Foundation on Tuesday. "It is as if there has been no National Intelligence Estimate; as if there was no debacle for the U.S. in Iraq; as if Hezbollah was not victorious in its conflict with Israel in 2006; and as if Iran’s uranium enrichment is not proceeding."
Israel, he pointed out, "must develop a Plan ‘B.’"
To be sure, the same could be said of the Bush administration in the wake of last week’s bombshell intelligence report, which concluded that Iran had suspended its drive to build a nuclear weapon in 2003 and has probably continued that suspension until today. Despite this, Bush, too, has continued to stress that "all options are on the table."
However politically infeasible a military strike might be now — or, say critics, however counterproductive even before the report — it was not hard to fathom the reasons for Bush’s unchanged view of the Iranian threat from the report itself.
Read in its entirety, the NIE’s assessment of Iran’s capabilities and unchanged goals offers scant support for those who have leapt to declare the threat of Iran going nuclear overblown. The only thing that seems new for certain is that in 2003 Iran suspended its program to convert fissile material into a nuclear weapon — a finding the report declares with "high confidence." It declares with only "moderate confidence" that this suspension continues in force today.
More disturbingly, compared to the last NIE in 2005, this report actually reduces the U.S. estimate of the time it will take Iran to be technically able to generate enough highly enriched uranium to create such a weapon — from roughly 2015 in the earlier report to "sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame" in this one. And uranium enrichment, which Iran is continuing under its declared civilian program, is actually the most difficult part of the technical challenge of creating a nuclear weapon, according to experts.
Iran denies it ever sought to convert uranium derived from this program to military use despite the estimate’s finding "with high confidence" that it did until the 2003 suspension.
Nevertheless, there was no denying the political impact of the opening statement of the NIE’s "Key Judgments": "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
Careful readers could point to a footnote noting that Iran’s civil program for uranium enrichment continues, and the next sentence in the main text, which reads: "We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." It still seemed impossible to conceive of Bush launching an attack to dismantle a weapons program his own intelligence agencies judged to probably not exist — or his providing the necessary support for Israel to do so.
"This report, accurate or not, and despite our objections, makes things much harder for the government of Israel," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst and author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," an analysis of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies.
Ironically, Javedanfar said, the report would even provide a recalcitrant Russia and China with an excuse to avoid supporting tougher sanctions to get Iran to stop enriching uranium — even though the report attributed the 2003 suspension to the power of "international pressure" that "suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously."
Facing this reality, Javedanfar is one of a number of non-governmental analysts in both the United States and Israel now urgently proposing a variety of "Plan ‘B’s."
Javedanfar advocated an Israeli peace initiative aimed at Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East. It would be, he said, the best way to further isolate Tehran in the region, even if Russia and China resisted further sanctions.
Among other things, he noted, Israel’s northern neighbor has provided sanctuary for the leaders of the Iranian supported anti-Israel terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It has acted as a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah, the lethal Shiite Lebanese militia closely tied to Tehran that rained its rockets down on northern Israel last year.
"There are more people willing to talk about paying the price" for peace with Syria now, said Javedanfar, who acknowledged that price would be a return of all the Golan to Syrian sovereignty with appropriate warning stations and security guarantees for Israel, plus a cutoff of Damascus’ support for anti-Israel terrorist groups backed by Tehran.
"It would be a price worth paying," Javedanfar said. "If the diplomatic track will not work against Iran, there would be more and more people who would support" talks with Syria. "It would not just isolate Iran, but enhance Israel’s standing in the Middle East, its relations with moderate Arab countries and its relations with European countries. It would also cut off Hezbollah’s supply lines," he said.
Talk To Iran
Efraim Halevy, a former head of Mossad, advocated an even more sweeping alternative: dropping Israel’s drive to isolate Iran altogether.
"In the situation now developing, U.S-Iranian engagement is coming closer and closer — regardless of whether it’s in our interest or not," he told the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "And if what is in the cards is engagement, it is essential that Israel have a seat at the table. The future of the region cannot be determined with Israel outside the door."
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Halevy noted that since the NIE, even Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative, is now advocating comprehensive U.S.-Iranian talks.
"He’s not some leftist softy," Helevy said, referring to an opinion piece Kagan published in The Washington Post this week. "This is the clearest signal. This is someone the president listens to."
Halevy voiced optimism that once Israel does sit with Iran in this context — with U.S. backing — the two countries could reach an understanding. Rejecting those who dismiss Iran’s leaders as "mad mullahs" driven only by ideology, Halevy said that ultimately, the Iranian regime "operates in a rational way, based on its interests."
Many analysts have noted that Iran cooperated closely with the U.S. during the latter’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime and its invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After Hussein’s overthrow, with perceptions of U.S. power at its zenith, Iran also proposed talks based on a comprehensive outline to resolve all outstanding issues, from Iran’s nuclear program to its backing of anti-Israel terrorist groups.
In return for substantial concessions on these issues then, Tehran’s theocrats sought full U.S. recognition of their legitimacy as Iran’s government, an end to all efforts to overthrow, isolate or marginalize them, and an end to all sanctions. The Bush adminstration did not respond to Iran’s proproposal.
Parsi said such a deal may still be on offer. But now, with the United State’s weakened position, "the price may be higher."
Still, some have given considerable thought to ways out of the nuclear conundrum.
In an article published last spring, Ray Taykeh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, advocated a "détente" that might include an agreement to allow Iran to enrich its uranium without sanction — but only if it agreed to submit "to a rigorous inspection regime to show that its nuclear program is not being diverted for military purposes."
This regime, he wrote, would include procedures "such as snap inspections, allow the permanent presence of personnel from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and [require] full disclosures about its previous activities."
"Iran’s ultimate goal may be to produce nuclear weapons," wrote Taykeh. "But the case of Iraq demonstrates that an exacting verification process backed by the international community can obstruct such ambitions."
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