Security and Defense: Better the devil you know?

Defense officials divided on whether it would be better for Israel if Iran's election is overturned.

iran election protests great 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
iran election protests great 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
This week, US President Barack Obama said loudly and clearly that he did not plan to interfere directly in the Iranian mayhem, sparked by what many believe was a blatant act of fraud that led to the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last Friday. Such was the official White House policy, announced Tuesday morning. Later that day, however, the State Department announced that it had contacted the social networking Web site, Twitter, to ask that it delay scheduled maintenance work, to enable Iranian protesters to continue using it, unimpeded, to bypass state-imposed censorship. These protesters have been using Twitter not only as a tool for exposing political violence, but also as a vessel through which supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi can organize the countrywide demonstrations. It is not only the US that finds itself in this dilemma - of trying to influence the events in Iran on the one hand, while staying out of the fray on the other. But Washington is perceived, particularly by Iranian opposition groups overseas, to have the ability to instill hope in the hundreds of thousands of anti-regime demonstrators. In Jerusalem, the response is more complex, as conflicting remarks made here - regarding the potency and effectiveness of the public uprising - indicate. The first official to voice a public opinion was Mossad chief Meir Dagan, whose appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee happened to be on Tuesday, as well. And what he said was that his agency estimated the riots wouldn't "last for long." A day later, former Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze'evi Farkash told The Jerusalem Post that he believed the uprising was the beginning of an unprecedented schism within the top Iranian elite that has ruled since the revolution in 1979. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, rather than making predictions, preferred to focus on the candidates. When asked about the events in Iran by reporters on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show, he said: "Let's not be under any illusions. Mousavi would not have been elected a member of Knesset or as governor of Maryland. These are religious radicals." His hesitancy about expressing an opinion in this case is based on experience. In the run-up to the January 2006 Palestinian Authority elections - the last held there - intelligence officials were fairly certain that Fatah would emerge victorious. In the end, however, Hamas won in what some called a landslide. Prior to the Lebanese election earlier this month, too, intelligence predictions - albeit private ones - were that Hizbullah would form the next government. Again, the assessment was wrong: The government in Lebanon is being formed by the Western-backed Sa'ad Hariri. The only foolproof bet Israel can make on an Arab election is when it takes place in Syria or Egypt. As Thomas Friedman recounted in his New York Times column this week: "After a Syrian election, an aide came in and told [the late Hafez] Assad: 'Mr. President, you won 99.8 percent of the votes. It means that only two-tenths of 1 percent of Syrians didn't vote for you. What more could ask for?' Assad answered: 'Their names!'" FOR ISRAEL, the election in Iran boils down to one major issue - the nuclear program, and the chances of its being stopped, whether Ahmadinejad or Mousavi end up taking the reins. One school of thought in the defense establishment is that Ahmadinejad serves Israel's short-term interests. With his open calls to destroy the Jewish state and his public denial of the Holocaust, he helps Israel make its diplomatic case against Iran. "Though from a Western perspective, and in the long run, it is better that there be a reformist, since such a president would be more open to changes," explained Farkash, "In the short term, it is better that there be someone we know, since time is critical. And we know Ahmadinejad." There are others in the government and Defense Ministry who believe we would be better off with Mousavi. After all, they explain, it's not as though we have succeeded in stopping the Iranian nuclear program during the last four years of Ahmadinejad's rule. And Germany and Austria continue to do billions of dollars' worth of business with Iran, enabling it to make great advancements, most importantly mastering the uranium-enrichment process. IN HIS briefing at the Knesset, Dagan caused some confusion when he said that if Teheran continued uninterrupted, it would have its first nuclear bomb in 2014. This assessment appears to contradict that of Military Intelligence's Research Division, according to which Iran would have enough low-grade uranium to build a bomb by the end of the year. So, while the public has been told that 2010 is the critical year, Dagan seemed to indicate that was not the case. In reality, though, both assessments are in harmony. MI spoke about the point at which Iran would obtain sufficient low-enriched uranium and be capable of upping the enrichment levels to produce the high-enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It is this that will happen over the coming year. And it is this that is considered the "point of no return," for two reasons: One is that it constitutes Iran's mastering of the technology, and once the technology is mastered, the fear is that even if the program is stopped militarily, it could simply pick up where it left off. The other is that it would enable Iran to conduct an underground test of a nuclear device, which would promptly serve as entry into the fairly exclusive nuclear club. Still, what Dagan was referring to when he put the date at 2014 is that even from the "point of no return," it would take a few more years before Iran would have a nuclear bomb that could be installed on a long-range missile. "Iran would sooner be able to conduct an underground test, like North Korea did, than launch a missile with a nuclear warhead," explained Farkash. Contrary to public thinking, the IDF is not gung-ho about a military strike against Iran. The prevalent assessment, shared by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi - who, by the way, speaks once a week by phone with his American counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen - is that now is the time to ratchet up sanctions. Due to the deteriorating global economic situation in general, and domestic inflation and high unemployment in particular, the IDF believes tougher sanctions could have a fairly quick effect on the regime in Teheran. The hope is that Obama is planning to do just this, if and when the dialogue he is planning to conduct with Iran fails. In the meantime, the IDF is continuing with its operational planning, in the event that all else fails.