Security and Defense: Ticking... and talking

After meeting with this week's parade of American officials, the defense establishment was optimistic.

barak gates 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
barak gates 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Though the street protests in Iran have only recently subsided, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resumed working the day after last month's election. A few weeks ago, the Iranian Presidential Study and Documentation Institute published a book called The Crumbling of the Myth of the Holocaust, which contains eight chapters on Ahmadinejad's ideas on Israel, Palestine and the Holocaust. Now that the election is over, Ahmadinejad can go back to Holocaust denial - an issue that featured prominently in the turbulent campaign and which was particularly controversial. Meanwhile, Iran is seeking to tighten security collaboration with the Gulf states, in an apparent attempt to curb Western influence, achieve regional hegemony and prevent its neighbors from agreeing to be used as launching pads for a strike against its nuclear facilities. In the beginning of July, for example, Qatari Chief of Staff Hamid Ali Atiya - Qatar is home to the US military's CENTCOM headquarters - visited Teheran to discuss military cooperation and joint training. In the coming weeks, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman, is scheduled to visit Iran to sign a military treaty. Another example was Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. On July 10, the Ahmadinejad government passed a bill in parliament that solidified security cooperation between Iran and Bahrain. This is all taking place alongside Iran's continued race toward nuclear power. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that some 5,000 centrifuges are now spinning to churn out low-enriched uranium. Another 2,000 are scheduled to become operational soon. According to the IAEA report, more than 3,000 pounds of low enriched uranium had been produced, in comparison to just over 2,220 pounds mentioned in an IAEA report in February, an amount that experts and US officials subsequently said was sufficient to process into enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear warhead. According to Israeli defense officials, the Iranian strategy is to enrich uranium to low levels - around 4 percent - in accordance with a civilian nuclear energy program. At the same time, the regime is rapidly constructing centrifuges which, if and when the decision is made, would be capable of fast and mass production of the high-enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon. Due to this strategy, the IAEA cannot say for certain that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, even though it suspects that the Islamic Republic was seeking weapons up until several years ago. The likely scenario, therefore - in the event that the dialogue the US has asked to hold with Iran fails - is that the regime will take the low-enriched uranium, run it through the modern centrifuge farm it has constructed and produce an amount of high-enriched uranium sufficient for several nuclear weapons. IN RESPONSE, Israeli strategy is twofold. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said this week, during a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Israel is willing to wait for the results of the dialogue Washington plans to hold with Teheran. But, as Barak made clear at an ensuing press conference, Israel's suggestion is not to take "any option off the table." Israel itself definitely does not plan to do so. Last week, US Air Force commander Gen. Norton A. Schwartz visited here for the first time. According to military sources, talks he held with defense officials focused on issues such as Iran. A week before that, Israel and the US held a joint exercise of the X-Band radar, which the Bush administration deployed in the Negev late last year. The exercise was held at EUCOM headquarters in Germany, and it revealed that, when operating in conjunction with Israeli early-warning systems, the X-Band enables Home Front Command to issue an alert about an incoming missile between five and seven minutes before impact. The testing of the X-Band came on the heels of the testing of the Arrow missile defense system on the US West Coast, and following the navy's decision to send a submarine and several of its advanced Sa'ar 5 class missile ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in years, a move understood to be a signal to Iran of its military preparations. The IAF has also been increasing its overseas training. THE MAIN question, though, is what the US plans to do. The parade of American officials to Jerusalem this week - including Gates, special envoy George Mitchell and National Security Adviser James Jones - was aimed at coordinating efforts and ensuring that both countries be on the same page. About the Gates-Barak meeting, defense commentators said that what they heard in the room was far different from what Gates said outside. "The Americans and we are on the same page, and are also very pessimistic about the outcome of a dialogue, particularly in light of the political mess in Iran today," explained one senior official. For that reason, Gates said the US will not wait forever for Iran to begin negotiations. The differences, however, begin to emerge when the sides start talking about "the day after" the dialogue - depending, of course, on its success or failure. If it is a failure, and the US decides to increase sanctions - particularly against Iran's refined fuel imports - Israeli officials are skeptical that such a move would be possible without Russian support, something that President Barack Obama has yet to obtain. But senior IDF officers said this week that they were encouraged by remarks Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen - who talks weekly with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi - made in recent interviews. While Mullen said that an Israeli strike would be destabilizing for the region, he also said that Iran is very focused on obtaining a nuclear capability. In addition, he accepted Israeli time estimates regarding the nuclear program, meaning that time is running out. These remarks are understood within the defense establishment as being aimed first and foremost at the White House. "What we think Mullen is trying to do is to warn his own government to prepare for the possibility that the talks will fail, and that if it doesn't want Israel to attack, to come up with a viable alternative," explained one top official. If the dialogue succeeds, Israel's hands will likely be tied. One possible scenario is that Obama agrees to allow Iran to establish a civilian nuclear program. While Israel may still view this as a threat, it will be almost impossible to attack without endangering its strategic relationship with the US. If the dialogue fails, Israel will have more room to maneuver, and to say to the Americans: "We gave you a chance, and now we have no choice but to attack." Though the US might nevertheless be upset with Israel for this, the consequences for Israeli-American relations would likely be far less severe than they would in the event that talks bear fruit.