Iran news update: Israel raises the temperature

A flurry of media reports in the past week have sounded the alarm over purported advancements in Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme and Israel’s willingness to launch a first strike to prevent Iran obtaining a bomb. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have raised the stakes in the full knowledge that the U.S. is less than three months from a presidential election.

The media blitz stemmed from an initial revelation in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on August 7th which reported that new Western intelligence confirmed Iran had made “greater progress on developing components for its nuclear weapons program” than previously thought. A later Haaretz article on August 9th claimed there was in fact a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on President Obama’s desk that brought the American assessment of Iran closer to Israel’s. That same day Haaretz confirmed such reports, appearing to finger Barak as the source of the leak.

Much of the subsequent reporting around the Haaretz revelations has been interpreted incorrectly. The Hill for example, in its DEFCON Hill blog, interpreted the Haaretz story as claiming “enrichment” progress in the Iran programme rather than “nuclear weapons components” progress which is what Haaretz initially claimed. There is a stark difference between the two.

Also, the Haaretz article followed the supposed NIE revelation with a story originally broken in July by British paper The Daily Telegraph which stated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had sent a contingent to the Lavizan facility to militarise the nuclear programme. The Telegraph’s source was the Iranian opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK). Subsequent reports comfortably referred to this information as “European media reports”.

The United States has come out stating its assessment of Iran’s programme has not changed, denying Israeli reports of a new NIE and saying the window for diplomacy is still open. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a press conference on August 15th,“the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate.”Sitting beside him, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, pointedly said that Israel can “delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. “ Aside from hawks in Congress, their views have been reflected by all sectors of the American foreign policy machine.

The U.S. unified opinion stands in contrast to Israel, whose opinion is fractured with a small number of senior politicians pushing the case for war and senior defence officials publicly resisting military action. Despite the anti-war opinions of very senior current and former politicians and security officials, Noam Sheizaf describes how newspapers in Israel are now filled with stories suggesting that the danger is growing and that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Barak are determined to hit Iran sometime this fall. Netanyahu and Barak have been leading the war rhetoric to the point where gas masks are being handed out by authorities.

Dr. Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that war talk from top Israelis may be an attempt to strengthen the economic sanctions effort against Iran. This idea was backed up by a former deputy chief of staff in the IDF, Uzi Dayan, who said after a meeting with Netanyahu and Barak that the situation could be saved if the “United States would be much clearer and stronger about the sanctions on one hand and about what can happen if Iran won’t make a U-turn”. Furthermore, some analysts have commented that similar Israeli sabre rattling last spring succeeded in ramping up US sanctions on Iran and this is just “round two”.

Walt also posits that the hawkish Israeli rhetoric could be distracting everyone from issues such as settlement building and the moribund peace process. On top of this are Netanyahu’s unpopular domestic social policies which have led to a dip in the polls. The recent war talk, by contrast, has seen a decrease in those Israelis opposed to an attack on Iran and, by extension, heightened support for Netanyahu’s tough stance.

On the issue of a unilateral Israeli strike lacking the potential to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, mentioned by Dempsey, it has been suggested that this could be another reason for Netanyahu and Barak’s rhetoric: ‘blackmailing the U.S.’ for more military assistance. Yedioth reported that such a situation would entice the US to ensure any unilateral strike will succeed by giving Israel the right equipment, essentially giving the keys to US munitions stores in Israel.

On another note, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis contended that intelligence leaks are usually the losing side of an argument and those leaking the information are simply lobbying public opinion and political opposition because they cannot convince the necessary decision makers.

That analysis may hold true in the light of a BBC report on a “document” leaked to blogger Richard Silverstein who, the Telegraph says, “has a record of breaking censored information inside Israel”. Silverstein was given a document “leaked by an officer in the IDF” (Israeli Defense Forces) through a former senior minister who said: “Normally I would not leak this information but these are not normal times and I’m afraid Netanyahu and Barak intend to go to war”.

The document outlines how successful an Israeli strike would be with minimal Israeli casualties, but was apparently leaked because it completely fails to acknowledge that Iran is well defended, knows what will hit it and knows how to strike back. The document is not a war plan as such, but rather a brief written to convince the Security Cabinet of the advantages of a military strike on Iran. As a result, the pro-war rhetoric may be targeting the public to convince the cabinet doubters.

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