The National – 5 April 2009
The new administrations in the United States and Israel could collide over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, threatening to strain their close, long-standing relationship.
The White House under Barack Obama has made conciliatory gestures towards Tehran, culminating in a video statement from the president a fortnight ago in which he appealed for a “new beginning” in relations between the two countries.
But since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israeli prime minister on Tuesday, he has preferred to highlight the military option as a way to prevent what Israel and the United States have claimed are Iranian plans to acquire a nuclear warhead under the guise of a civilian energy programme.
Statements from Mr Netanyahu and his officials over the past few days have been designed to suggest that Israel is preparing to launch such a strike, even if it contravenes the wishes of the White House.
The public differences between Israel and the United States on Iran have accelerated since Israel’s military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, published an assessment last month that Tehran had passed the “point of no return” in developing nuclear technology.
He concluded that sanctions had failed and that, if Tehran gave the go-ahead, its scientists had the technology to assemble a warhead within a year or so. The US director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, has dismissed such claims as a “worst-case” scenario.
The National Intelligence Estimate, the consensual assessment of the 16 leading US intelligence agencies, advised in 2007 that Iran had most probably abandoned its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, after the United States ended the military threat from neighbouring Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein.
The estimate’s publication scotched Israeli hopes that George W Bush, president at the time, would agree to a military attack. The Bush administration, nonetheless, maintained an openly hostile stance towards Tehran that accorded with Israel’s own posture.
Mr Obama, however, has softened the US position, offering dialogue and seeking to ease tensions between the two countries that have dominated since an Islamic revolution overthrew the shah three decades ago.
On Wednesday Mr Obama made a break with his predecessor by issuing a statement – jointly with Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart – recognising Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear programme. The pair asked that Tehran restore confidence in the “exclusively peaceful nature” of its project.
In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had strictly monitored the uranium Iran is enriching for its energy programme and could verify that none had been diverted to military use.
The United States is expected to use the diplomatic track to press for restraint from Tehran, with the threat of further sanctions later in the year if it believes Iran is failing to comply.
In opposition, Mr Netanyahu was outspoken in denouncing the Iranian regime. He compared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, to Hitler and repeatedly argued that Tehran was planning a holocaust with nuclear weapons against Israel. He was also dismissive of the existing sanctions against Iran.
Analysts had expected Mr Netanyahu to tone down his rhetoric in office, particularly given the policies of the Obama administration. So far, however, he has chosen to do the precise opposite.
A recent editorial in Haaretz, a left-wing daily newspaper, warned that Mr Netanyahu’s approach threatened to damage relations with Washington: “While the Americans are actively seeking a way to start a dialogue, Israel is preaching confrontation and the toppling of the government in Tehran.”
Hours before he was sworn in, Mr Netanyahu gave an interview to The Atlantic, a US magazine, whose online article was headlined “Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran – Or I Will”.
The author, Jeffrey Goldberg, called Mr Netanyahu’s “challenge” to the White House “unusually blunt”. He did not directly quote the prime minister’s warning, but reported his saying in their interview that Mr Obama “must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – and quickly – or an imperilled Israel may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself”.
The article quoted an unnamed aide to Mr Netanyahu saying that Israel’s time limit for acting was calculated in months, “not years”, adding that Israel had the military capability to overcome Iran’s defences and might launch an attack even without a green light from the United States.
Aluf Benn, a political commentator with Haaretz, noted last week: “Politicians in touch with Netanyahu say he has already made up his mind to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.”
This view was backed by Amir Oren, an analyst close to the Israeli military, who reported on Friday that Israeli officials hope to persuade the White House to turn a blind eye to an Israeli strike next year, possibly in the summer. By then the bulk of US forces would be out of neighbouring Iraq, offering fewer targets for revenge attacks.
Israel, Mr Oren reported, would also have installed interception systems to offer a protective umbrella both against long-range missiles from Iran and retaliatory rocket fire from Hamas and Hizbollah, which Iran supports.
Gen David Petraeus, the top US commander in the Middle East, told Congress last week that Israel was assuming the worst about Iran. “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”
Although Israeli officials play up the supposed threat of annihilation from a nuclear-armed Iran, the major concern is that an Iranian bomb would end Israel’s exclusive possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and undermine its dominance of the region. Iran might then be able to force major territorial concessions on behalf of the Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu hinted at this during his interview. A nuclear-armed Iran, he said, would “create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area”.