One of the last times Leon Panetta came to Israel was to stop the country from attacking Iran.
It was May 2009, just months after both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama had taken up their respective positions, and the then-CIA chief was reportedly sent to Israel to ensure the new government in Jerusalem was not planning unilateral action against the Islamic Republic.
Israel fears Iran will copy its policy of nuclear ambiguity
On Monday, Panetta will again arrive in Israel, although this time as secretary of defense. He will be met by an honor guard at the Defense Ministry and when he sits down for talks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Iran will again feature prominently on the agenda.
What he will find, though, might not be to his liking.
According to some estimations, the chances of an Israeli strike against Iran might be growing. This is seen as the result of a number of factors – the lack of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians that would have served as a restraint, and more important, the international community’s failure to stop Iran with sanctions.
At the same time, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s recent warning that with him, former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin no longer in office there is no one left capable of standing up to Barak and Netanyahu if they should decide to take action.
Iran is currently at the stage of its nuclear program where it has proven capable of enriching uranium to different levels – to 3.5 percent and to 20%. It has more than 5,000 centrifuges at its main fuel enrichment facility in Natanz and is working to install its first cascade of 164 new-generation centrifuges at the Fordo facility burrowed deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
The current assessment, shared by most Western intelligence agencies, is that once a decision is made to make the bomb it will take Iran approximately one year to create a first device and then another one to two years to make a warhead that could be installed on a ballistic missile.
When would a decision be made? That is unclear.
What is clear, though, is who would make the decision – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the same man who on Saturday called Israel a “cancerous tumor.”
One of the main differences between Panetta and Barak is in their assessment regarding the stability of the regime in Tehran. Earlier this month, Panetta said that a revolution of the likes that occurred in Egypt and in Libya was a “matter of time” in Iran as well.
Barak, and the IDF, which he oversees, does not share that assessment.
According to Israeli forecasts, the Iranian regime is facing
overwhelming economic challenges – growing inflation, high unemployment
and zero growth – but the high oil prices balance everything out.
While Israel remains committed to “leaving all options on the table,”
Netanyahu and Barak both believe there is still time to stop Iran with
sanctions, albeit tougher than the ones that have been imposed until
The sanctions passed over the past year by the US, France and the UK
have impacted Iran but not yet to the point that it is reconsidering its
nuclear policy. Israel would, for example, like to see more sanctions
aimed at Iranian financial institutions.
The visit by Panetta, though, needs to be looked at through the larger
prism of Israeli-American relations today, which seem to have been taken
over by the upcoming presidential elections and the Obama
administration’s fears it is losing the Jewish vote.
Panetta will likely use this visit to try and ease Israeli concerns and tensions.
He will likely promise a continuation and even an increase in ongoing
military support but at the same time, he will also look for assurances
that Israel will not surprise America.