Security and defense: Dialogue maneuvers

Israel's influence over the Obama administration is limited, vis-a-vis Iran.

obama never again 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama never again 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
On Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the Pentagon into a tailspin by firing Gen. David McKiernan, the top military commander in Afghanistan. The decision to oust McKiernan and replace him with Lt.-Gen. Stanley McChrystal is said to be part of the implementation of President Barack Obama's new strategy with regard to the worsening situation in Afghanistan, where, according to NATO, attacks have been up 73 percent since the beginning of the year. McChrystal is said to be well versed in special operations, and Gates said he hopes "fresh eyes" will enable the US to achieve its goal of defeating the Taliban. A day later, across the border, Pakistani commandos intensified their offensive against Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley, amid Western fears that the Islamic radicals were tightening their grip on Islamabad and its nuclear arsenal. THAT SAME day, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and explained how, while we tend to think that the world's attention is on us - and only us - Obama's list of priorities is currently topped by the global economic crisis, the growing violence in Afghanistan, the instability in Pakistan and the Iranian nuclear threat. "Only then does he get to the Middle East," Yadlin concluded. This assessment is shared by most of the defense establishment. In a recent briefing, Defense Minister Ehud Barak asserted that Pakistan was a more pressing threat than Iran, even for Israel. In contrast to Iran, he explained, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons; if the government there falls, who knows who could end up in possession of those weapons? Yadlin's briefing reflects a deeper understanding within the defense establishment - that the country's level of influence over the Obama administration is limited. As Barak recently explained: "Israel cannot tell the US not to talk to Iran. What we can do is try to influence the framework of that dialogue." This is exactly what the government is trying to do. During his visit to Washington next week, the US-Iranian dialogue will feature prominently in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's meeting with Obama. A few weeks later, Barak will visit Washington for meetings with Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones, and he, too, will try to influence the framework of the dialogue, likely to begin shortly after Iran goes to presidential elections next month. While the Americans have not announced what the time frame of the talks with Iran would be, Israel is recommending that the dialogue be limited to three-to-five months. At the same time, it is hoping that the US will set benchmarks for the talks, like telling Teheran that it has two months to stop enriching uranium. The ultimate question that the defense establishment feels it does not yet have a clear answer to is: What, exactly, is the so-called success that Obama is seeking in a dialogue with Iran? TALKS WITH the US are taking place on many different levels. There is the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, Barak's planned visit, frequent conversations between Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and his American counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, and a visit some two weeks ago by CIA Director Leon Panetta for talks on Iran. Officials in the Obama administration say that their goal is to stop Iran from going nuclear. This is a tough goal to meet, since its program is already at an advanced stage, and the leadership there will likely not just dismantle its facilities. What could be a goal, according to Israel, is a transfer - or outsourcing - of all enrichment activities from the underground bunker facility in Natanz to a third-party country. An offer to have Russia enrich uranium on its behalf was made several years ago by the Europeans, but was rejected by Iran. This potential goal was presented last week in a speech (entitled "The Middle East Security Agenda: An Israeli Assessment") before the Washington Institute for Near East Policy by Barak's chief of staff Brig.-Gen. Mike Herzog. Herzog, a candidate to become the next coordinator of government activities in the territories, and one of Barak's closest advisers, laid out four potential scenarios vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program and its true intentions. The first option, he said, is that Iran really intends to develop a nuclear weapon and draws inspiration from North Korea, which succeeded in outwitting the world, and which has since failed to disarm Pyongyang. The second option is that Iran intends to continue enriching uranium at low levels, but will stop at the threshold of nuclear weapons. Its goal will be to stockpile enough fissionable material for several nuclear devices - possibly four - and then wait for the right moment to move forward with its weapons program. "If they feel that the international community is not strong enough, not pressurizing them enough and they have an opportunity, then they might break ahead," he said. The third possibility is that Iran will work with the existing inspected materiel it has, estimated at close to two tons. But this would make it very difficult to then move forward at a later stage to a nuclear weapon, even though, Herzog said, it would likely be able to enrich the uranium it has at a higher rate, without the International Atomic Energy Agency ever noticing. The fourth scenario is possibly the most frightening of all. It is called the "bomb in the cellar," or the possibility that Iran already has a fully clandestine production line and enrichment program in unknown facilities. On this, Herzog said: "We suspect that they will want to have some sites unknown to us. But, again, you don't know what you don't know. I can't rule out this possibility." What is clear from Herzog's analysis is that there still is a lot Israel does not know about Iran's nuclear program, its facilities and intentions. It is within this cloud of uncertainty that Netanyahu and Barak will try to push the US to hold a quick dialogue with Iran and ratchet up diplomatic pressure - through sanctions - or even military pressure if all else fails.