Security and Defense: Dropping a bomb on Israel

Since the US intel report, Olmert and Barak have been very careful to avoid a public rift with the US.

Ahmadinejad pop star 224 (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad pop star 224
(photo credit: AP)
In 2004, a Knesset committee established to investigate intelligence assessments in the run up to the Iraq War found that Military Intelligence and the Mossad had failed to assess the true dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. The probe, headed by Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, then head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, ruled that there had been a "serious intelligence failure" regarding the assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, and that there was a need for a reorganization within the intelligence agencies. A severe lack of hard intelligence from Iraq, the probe revealed, led them to base their assessments on "estimations" and "predictions" and not on concrete evidence. Almost four years have passed since the damning probe, and intelligence estimates are still stringent, although this time in relation to Iran and its continued race towards nuclear power. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Steinitz, a member of the committee and head of its subcommittee on intelligence, said that intelligence on Iran is far better today than it was on Iraq four years ago. "A1 intelligence gathering is difficult," Steinitz said. "Today we have solid, concrete and good intelligence." His defense of intelligence capabilities came just a few days after the US National Intelligence Council released its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a consensus view of all 16 American intelligence agencies - which claimed that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons development program in the fall of 2003 and has yet to restart it. The findings are a dramatic change from those of two years ago, when the intelligence agencies concluded that Iran was determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability and constituted a particular diversion from remarks made recently by President George W. Bush that World War III would break out if the ayatollahs got their hands on a bomb. WHAT THE report makes even clearer are the major differences between the various intelligence agencies in Israel and the US. The Mossad claims that the Iranians will be able to develop a nuclear bomb by the end of 2009; Military Intelligence warns that Teheran will cross the technological threshold within six months; and now the Americans are putting the time line toward the middle of the next decade, or - at the earliest - in 2013. The report, released on Monday, came as a blow to the Israeli defense establishment, and according to some officials was even a surprise to the Bush administration. Three weeks ago, Steinitz led a delegation of Knesset members to Washington and met with Vice President Richard Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and senators, congressmen and administration officials. "No one mentioned a word about the new assessment," Steinitz said Thursday morning. "If you ask me, it came as a complete surprise to them." The report was first made known to Israel several months ago during one of the regular meetings of the Israeli-US Strategic Dialogue led by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. During one of the sessions, an Israeli official recalled, Burns spoke about the "traditional" and known assessments regarding Iran's nuclear program, and told Mofaz that they might be changing soon with the publication of the NIE report. Last week, on the sidelines of the Annapolis peace summit, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shared the findings with his counterpart, Ehud Barak. Bush did the same with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Since the report came out, both Olmert and Barak have been weighing their public remarks very carefully so as not to create a public disagreement with the US administration. Despite this effort, the sentiment in the defense establishment was one of disappointment over Israel's clear failure to prove its case to the US. In addition to the Strategic Dialogue, Israel maintains a number of parallel lines of communication with the White House, Pentagon and the CIA which are used for sharing intelligence information on issues of mutual interest. Head of the Research Department in Military Intelligence, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, as well as other senior intelligence and IDF officers, including Mossad chief Meir Dagan, have been in Washington over the past year to present Israel's assessments on Iran, including the possibility that it will have an operational nuclear device by the end of 2009. SO WHAT were the US intelligence agencies thinking when composing the new NIE report? Were they not concerned that such a report might embolden Iran and its radical leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and serve as an obstacle on the way to imposing a new round of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council? Israeli officials who read the report said they were taken aback by its careful and almost self-contradictory wording. MK Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, claimed to have found numerous contradictions in the report. "In one place the report says that Iran froze its weapons program," Sneh told the Post from Washington where he spoke at the Israeli Policy Forum. "And in another place, the report says that the Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium - something they admit to - and could have a bomb between 2010 and 2015." While the fundamental disagreement between Israel and the US is over the question of whether Iran suspended its military program, both countries agree in their assessments that its civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing and could one day, fairly quickly, turn into a military program easily capable of producing a bomb. Steinitz says that in many cases intelligence agencies suffer from what he calls the "pendulum syndrome." The US, Steinitz says, is influenced by a political agenda and is still traumatized by the blatant intelligence failure vis-à-vis Iraq's alleged WMD, and therefore does not want to be caught crying wolf again. Israel, on the other hand, is traumatized by its failure to learn of Libya's nuclear program before it was abandoned in a deal Col. Muammar Gaddafi struck with the US and the UK. As a result of these traumas, each country interprets the situation a little differently. Israel takes the more stringent track, since it is better to be safe than sorry. America takes the more lax approach, so as not to find itself in the midst of an unjustifiable war. "In Iraq they made a mistake by overestimating," Steinitz said. "Now they are making a mistake by underestimating with Iran." THE CLEAR consequence of the report is that Bush's hands will be tied when it comes to the possibility of using military force to stop Iran. Some officials in Tel Aviv raised the possibility that after deterring the US from military action, the report might indirectly do the same for Israel, which would need American approval, and possibly even assistance, if it decided to go after Iran on its own. One official raised the possibility that the release of the report on Monday was actually timed with America's announcement on Sunday that it had succeeded in getting the Chinese to agree to a new round of sanctions. By taking the military option off the table, the official suggested, the US might succeed in getting China and Russia on board for sanctions. Whatever the case, the report is, as Sneh said, proof that "at the end of the day, we can only count on ourselves."