Iran’s leader said it won’t back down in the confrontation over its nuclear program, as the U.S. and Israel disagreed publicly over timing for a potential military attack.
The allies have a “significant analytic difference” over how close Iran is to shielding the nuclear program from attack, Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, said yesterday in an interview. “There’s a growing concern -- more than a concern -- that the Israelis, in order to protect themselves, might launch a strike without approval, warning or even foreknowledge.”
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that his nation won’t abandon its nuclear efforts and warned that a strike would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East “10 times over,” according to the Associated Press.
Referring to Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that will be cut, Khamenei said in his Friday sermon that “if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will help.”
Differences over how to stop Iran’s nuclear activities were underscored by public comments this week by Israeli and U.S. defense officials.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Feb. 2 that Israel must consider conducting “an operation” before Iran reaches an “immunity zone,” referring to Iran’s goal of protecting its uranium enrichment and other nuclear operations by moving them to deep underground facilities such as one at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
“The world has no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program is steadily nearing readiness and is about to enter an immunity zone,” Barak said in an address to the annual Herzliya Conference at the Interdisciplinary Center campus north of Tel Aviv. “If the sanctions don’t achieve their goal of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, there will arise the need of weighing an operation.”
While Israelis think Iran will reach the immunity zone in “half the time the Americans think it will,” Miller said it’s “by and large an overstatement” to describe that difference as a growing rift.
The U.S. holds the view that “there is still time and space to pursue diplomacy” with Iran, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday in Washington. He said the U.S. “is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declined to comment directly on a report by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June. Panetta and other U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Israel not to act alone.
“Israel has indicated that they’re considering this” through public statements, Panetta told reporters traveling with him on Feb. 2 in Brussels. “And we have indicated our concerns.”
Tension and distrust between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be complicating communications on the issue, according to a U.S. defense official who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the news media.
Defense officials have been concerned that Obama hasn’t warned Netanyahu directly enough about the risks of an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, including Iranian retaliation against U.S. bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, according to the official.
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Jan. 31 that communication with Israel is good. “We’re doing a lot with the Israelis, working together with them,” he told the Senate intelligence panel.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said in a Jan. 26 interview with National Journal he told Israeli leaders last month that it is “premature” to resort to military force because sanctions are starting to have an impact on Iran.
Lawmakers in Washington are pressing to ratchet up the economic pressure.
The Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved a bill on Feb. 2 that targets Iran-related banking transactions, Iran’s national oil company and leading tanker fleet and joint ventures in mining and energy projects. It also would require corporate disclosure of Iran-related activity to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
One provision calls on the administration to provide a report to Congress within 60 days detailing Iran-related financial transactions facilitated by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the Belgian member-owned institution known as Swift, and its competitors. The measure would give the president authority to sanction them for facilitating such transfers. A similar bill, with stronger language mandating the imposition of sanctions, was submitted in the House.
While leaders of both countries agree that time must be given to gauge the impact of economic sanctions on Iran, Israel’s patience is shorter than that of the U.S., said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“It will take at least six months to see whether sanctions are effective and by then it may be too late,” said Kam, author of the 2007 book, “A Nuclear Iran: What Does it Mean, and What Can be Done.”
“We’re definitely using different clocks,” he said.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz told the Herzliya conference on Feb. 1 that his nation must be “willing to deploy” its military assets because Iran may be within a year of gaining nuclear weapons capability. Gantz said international sanctions are starting to show some results.
Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s vice prime minister and its former top military commander, played down Iran’s ability to shelter its activities from a military attack.
“It’s possible to strike all Iran’s facilities, and I say that out of my experience as IDF chief of staff,” he said at the conference, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces.
The U.S., its European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have challenged the government in Tehran to prove that its nuclear work is intended only for energy and medical research, as Iranian officials maintain. An IAEA inspection team is scheduled to hold hold talks in Iran Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, following up a three-day session that ended Jan. 31 without a breakthrough.
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