Dempsey urges closer coordination on first Israel visit

Islamic Republic downplays possible US naval moves in Persian Gulf.

US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey_311 (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey_311
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Amid rising tension over Iran’s nuclear program, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, called to increase cooperation with Israel, during a visit to the country over the weekend.
Talks with Dempsey focused on ways to increase cooperation, particularly amid fears in the US that the Netanyahu government is considering launching a strike against Iran in the coming months.
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Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the beginning of their meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Friday.
“There is never a dull moment, that I can promise you,” responded Barak.
During his meetings on Friday morning at the General Staff Headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dempsey was briefed by Gantz and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Israel’s assessments of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
Another topic discussed with Dempsey – and raised earlier in the week by Gantz during his visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels – is the continued smuggling of arms by Iran to its terrorist proxies in the region.
Israel hopes for increased international cooperation in the war on smuggling, and looks to the US to spearhead those efforts.
Dempsey’s visit came amid rising tension between Jerusalem and Washington over Israeli frustration with the US and Europe’s reluctance to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran.
During his talks with Israel’s military and political leadership, Dempsey tried to reassure Israel that the Obama administration is committed to stopping Iran’s nuclear program, even if it ultimately comes down to using military force.
While there are differences between the countries as to the type of steps that need to be taken to stop Iran, Israel and the US share the same intelligence assessments regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program and that while Iran has mastered all of the technology it requires to build a nuclear weapon, the regime has yet to make the decision to do so.
During a visit to Jerusalem on Friday, Dempsey toured Yad Vashem and placed a wreath in honor of the six million Holocaust victims.
In brief remarks after the tour, Dempsey noted the significance of the date – 70 years to the day since the Wannsee Conference held near Berlin, where senior Nazi officials discussed the Final Solution.
“We are committed to ensuring that such a human tragedy never happens again,” Dempsey wrote in the museum’s visitor book.
Dempsey began his visit on Thursday night when he and his wife, Deanie, met Gantz and his wife, Revital, for dinner in Jaffa. Before sitting down to eat, Gantz surprised Dempsey with a performance by the IDF Orchestra, which played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
Dempsey is a Sinatra fan and often sings at military ceremonies. After dinner, instead of returning to his hotel, the Dempseys spent an hour touring Jaffa together with the Gantzes. Military sources said Gantz would likely travel to the US for continued talks with Dempsey in the coming months.
In a related development, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Saturday it considered the likely return of US warships to the Gulf part of routine activity, backing away from previous warnings to Washington not to re-enter the area.
The statement may be seen as an effort to reduce tensions after Washington said it would respond if Iran made good on a threat to block the Strait of Hormuz – the vital shipping lane for oil exports from the Gulf.
“US warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region for many years and their decision in relation to the dispatch of a new warship is not a new issue and it should be interpreted as part of their permanent presence,” Revolutionary Guard Deputy Commander Hossein Salami told the official IRNA news agency.
The apparently conciliatory comments may be a response to the European Union and Washington’s rejection of Iran’s declaration that it was close to resuming negotiations with world powers and with the Pentagon saying it did not expect any challenge to its warships.
Crude oil prices have spiked several times this year over fears that diplomatic tensions could escalate to military clashes as well as uncertainty about the effect of sanctions on the market.
Along with the EU, which is set to agree on an embargo on Iranian oil next week, Washington hopes the sanctions will force Iran to suspend the nuclear activities it believes are aimed at making a nuclear bomb.
There has been no American aircraft carrier in the Gulf since the USS John C. Stennis left at the end of December at a time when the Revolutionary Guard was conducting naval maneuvers.
On January 3, after President Barack Obama signed new sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s oil exports, Tehran told the USS Stennis not to return – an order interpreted by some observers in Iran and Washington as a blanket threat to any US carrier.
“I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf,” Iran’s army chief, Maj.-Gen.
Ataollah Salehi, said at the time.
“We are not in the habit of warning more than once.”
Washington says it will return to the Gulf, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said any move to block Hormuz would be seen as a “red line,” requiring a response.
Citing operational security, the Pentagon will not say when the next carrier will return to the Gulf but officials say it is only a matter of time and they do not expect any problems.
In the coming days or weeks, the Revolutionary Guard will begin new naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. Salami told IRNA these would go ahead as planned in the Iranian month of Bahman, which runs from January 21 to February 19.
Iran has said it is ready to return to talks with world powers that stalled one year ago, but the West, concerned about Tehran’s move of the most sensitive atomic work to a bombproof bunker, says it must first see a willingness from Tehran to address the nuclear issue.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that “time is running out” for a diplomatic solution and urged Russia and China to drop their opposition to sanctions on Iranian oil.
Iran is OPEC’s second-biggest exporter and blocking its crude exports – through the EU embargo or US moves to punish banks that trade with Iran – could have a devastating impact on its economy, but there are no signs such pressure would force it to stop exercising what it calls its peaceful nuclear rights.
Major powers signaled on Friday their willingness to reopen talks about curbing Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons but said Tehran must show it is serious about negotiations.
Diplomats said they remained divided on their approach, notably on whether to let Iran keep enriching uranium at some level.
The group, known as the P5+1, and as the EU3+3, is made up of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the group, issued a statement making clear that a diplomatic path remained open to Iran, despite tougher sanctions and fresh speculation of a military strike on its nuclear facilities.
“The EU3+3 has always been clear about the validity of the dual-track approach,” Ashton’s representative said in a statement that included her October 21 letter to the Iranians laying out the possibility of talks. “We are waiting for the Iranian reaction.”
The release of the statement and letter appeared to reflect frustration at Iran’s statements hinting at a willingness to resume talks but Tehran’s failure to formally respond to the letter and commit to discussing the nuclear program in earnest.