Security and Defense: Teheran has to be stopped

The defense establishment is preparing for the possibility that it will have to go it alone.

ahmadinejad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
On Saturday, just days before his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House, US President George W. Bush took a break from his busy schedule to deliver the commencement address at the stadium of Furman University in South Carolina. Bush spoke to the 600 graduates about volunteerism, and though he refrained from speaking about the more pressing issues on his nation's agenda, the protesters outside the stadium did not. "We've lost 4,000 of our precious soldiers for a war we shouldn't have gone into," one protester was quoted in a local South Carolina newspaper. "Iran or Iraq did not attack us. Why should we attack them? We got to stop this war." Iraq is the Bush administration's current war. Iran, if the growing number of recent media reports are to be believed, could be the next one. The reports began to emerge last month after Bush's visit to Israel, which left Olmert and his staff confident that the president would not leave the White House in January 2009 without stopping Iran's nuclear program. Last week, the Asia Times quoted a former assistant secretary of state claiming that the administration was planning to strike Iran by the end of the summer. Olmert arrived in Washington on Tuesday, under the pretext of attending the annual AIPAC policy conference. More importantly, he was there to follow up on the Iranian discussions he had held with Bush in Jerusalem last month, and to secure a new weapons package for the IDF, in view of the nuclear threat. As Olmert met with Bush on Wednesday, Mike McConnell, the man who briefs the president daily on intelligence issues - and who happens to be a 1966 Furman University graduate - landed in Israel for talks with his Israeli counterparts. McConnell has come a long way since his college days. After a career in the Navy - he finished with the rank of vice-admiral - and in the National Security Agency NSA), he was appointed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) by Bush a little over a year ago. As the DNI, McConnell is one of the first people the president meets each morning when he gets to the Oval Office for what is called the PDB - the President's Daily Brief. The PDB is used to lay out the most updated issues of concern around the world as understood by the DNI, who serves as the head of the US Intelligence Community, which includes 16 different agencies, among them the CIA, FBI and NSA. Israel does not really have an equivalent to McConnell. That is why, during his trip here this week, he met with not only the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, and representatives from Military Intelligence, but also with Defense Minister Ehud Barak - a meeting that defense officials said was not according to protocol, but was of extreme importance. McConnell's office made headlines in December with the release of a declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which claimed that Iran had suspended its nuclear military program in 2003. "We assess with moderate confidence that Teheran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons," the NIE stated in a sharp break from a 2005 report that claimed with "high confidence" that Iran was determined to develop a nuclear bomb. As expected, the report spurred a storm in defense and diplomatic corridors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, raising Israeli concern that the US was backing down from an earlier declared commitment by Bush to prevent an Iranian nuclearization. Following the publication of the report, dozens of meetings have been held between Israeli and US intelligence officials. McConnell's visit this week is a continuation of that dialogue. As significant as McConnell's visit may be, though, top defense officials said this week that it was highly unlikely that the DNI would revise the NIE and align it with Israeli assessments concerning Iran's nuclear program - assessments according to which the Islamic Republic does have a military program, and that it could have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade. This was made quite clear last week by McConnell's deputy, Donald Kerr, when, at a dinner hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he said that the DNI had no intention of changing its earlier report. He also claimed that the NIE raised significant concerns over Iran's intentions, and that these were overlooked in the public debate that followed the report's declassification. "Until we have new data, new facts, we're not going to change the basic NIE, the classified version," he said. "We, of course, are working every day to either find more facts, new facts, or those that might support where we are today. And that's an ongoing effort." Kerr did acknowledge, however, that the DNI had made a mistake in not expressing itself correctly, by not emphasizing the critical importance of Iran's nuclear material (i.e. uranium enrichment) and missile-development programs, which are continuing overtly to this day. "We didn't do the job we should have in expressing the points we were trying to make," he said. "And that's why…I've tried to focus attention on the key role that production of fissile material bears on this whole question, the key role that the missile developments play, and the fact that once you have the fissile material in sufficient quantity, we're not talking about a great long period of time before an effective weapons capability might exist." AS THE American intelligence community continued to make amends for its report, Olmert walked out of the Oval Office Wednesday evening claiming that, following his meeting with Bush, he now had "fewer questions about Iran." Olmert declined to give any details, but said: "Every day we are making real strides towards dealing with this problem more effectively." While what was discussed in Olmert's one-on-one meeting with Bush is not publicly known, sources close to Barak said this week that chances for a US strike on Iran's nuclear installations were slim. Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser - who, until 2006, headed MI's Research and Assessment Division - agrees with that assessment, though he acknowledged that it is difficult to predict what Bush will do in his last days in office. "There is a possibility that America will do something, but the NIE seriously hurt those chances," he said. In recent weeks, a new theory has been running through the corridors of the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv. It goes something like this: If democratic candidate Barack Obama wins the presidential elections in November, Bush will attack Iran before leaving office. If Republican candidate John McCain wins, Bush will feel confident that the Iranian threat will be dealt with appropriately by his successor, and will not take military action. Kuperwasser said he is familiar with this theory, but is more concerned that time is running out, and that by November it will be too late. In an article in Time magazine last week, the former intelligence chief was quoted as saying about a potential American attack: "Just do it. For Christ's sake, do it and solve our problem." But if the US doesn't "just do it," chances are that Israel will. The escalation in rhetoric has been noticeable of late in Jerusalem, with even the usually moderate-toned Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declaring publicly that the option of military action against a nuclear-bent Iran must be kept on the table. This is why Olmert's meeting with Bush was not just about coordinating policy with the US vis-à-vis Iran, but also about getting Israel new and advanced military platforms as a consolation prize, in the event that the IDF ends up having to do it on its own. These platforms are all the more significant in light of Iranian and Syrian purchases of advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems. One of the first items on Olmert's shopping list was the F-22 - a stealth bomber currently operational in the US. Israel has asked to be allowed to acquire the jet - currently under congressional ban - in the face of Iranian attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon. The F-22, today the world's most advanced fighter jet, can avoid radar detection. The IDF is also interested in other weapons - such as cruise missiles, laser-guided JDAMs and bunker-buster missiles - and is asking the US for permission to hook up directly to a global satellite system that detects missile launches anywhere in the world, so that it doesn't have to receive second-hand information. These systems and platforms play a dual role. They enhance Israel's level of deterrence, as the F-22s would be capable of flying straight into downtown Teheran without the Iranians knowing. More importantly, the systems would provide Israel with a new level of superiority, unmatched in the region and in the rest of the world, outside of the US. With time running out, such systems would certainly be beneficial.