Analysis: A lack of clarity in government circles on Iran

Israeli quietly urging diplomatic pressure on Iran while preparing for unnamed options.

meir dagan 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
meir dagan 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The reports over the last few days about the increased likelihood of an American attack on Iranian nuclear installations before the end of President George W. Bush's term of office elicited the regular responses of "alarm" and "concern." Critics of the Bush Administration rushed to blame the regular culprits: neo-conservatives, Iranian migr s and, of course, Israeli politicians, for putting pressure on the president to take a hard-line. The same tune can be heard from both the Left and the right-wing old-conservatives in the US and all over Europe. They all seem to be assuming that Israel is pursuing a clear policy towards the Iranian threat. However, criticism in recent weeks in political and intelligence circles in Israel indicates that this might not be the case. The official Israeli policy of "the less spoken the better" and "Iran is the responsibility of the entire international community" was formulated by Ariel Sharon in the first days of his premiership and has not been altered by Ehud Olmert since he took his place. Olmert made a small departure from this policy last week at the Herzliya Conference, dedicating his entire speech to Iranian issues, but that was solely to reaffirm the government's support of the existing policy. That policy remains the same: quietly urge the major powers to mount pressure on Iran in order to reach a diplomatic solution, while keeping open all unnamed options. For the last three and a half years, the man in charge of leading this campaign of discreet coalition building through diplomatic back-channels and the relationships between intelligence organizations has been Mossad chief Meir Dagan. He was appointed to this position by his old friend and patron Sharon. Now there are those who are discreetly criticizing Dagan, who is due to retire in nine months. "The government has to assign a project leader at the highest level to concentrate all the efforts against Iran," a former senior government adviser said last week. "Dagan can take care of the intelligence side, but his position limits him when it comes to political and diplomatic aspects." Another criticism of Dagan is that he has sidelined other senior officials with different views of how to deal with the Iranian threat. Among them are the head of the National Security Council, Ilan Mizrahi, who has suggested that the government also prepare a contingency plan for the day that Iran turns nuclear, and Defense Ministry Special Adviser Uri Lubrani who is against a military attack on Iran and instead advocates a comprehensive plan of destabilizing the Iranian regime from within. There are also arguments among those espousing the majority view that the Iranians will not give in to diplomatic pressure and a military strike is inevitable. There is the view presented by former but still influential IDF R&D chief Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael that Israel is perfectly capable of dealing the Iranian program a devastating blow and the time for that is near, but the more accepted wisdom is that Israel can rely on President Bush's "assurance" that he won't allow Iran to achieve nuclear capability. But voices within the intelligence community are beginning to sound skeptical. "Bush might want to order an attack on Iran," says one source, "but in a few months he might no longer have enough political power to do so. The question is: Can Israel help him?" But can Israel really influence the decision-making in Washington and help create domestic support for Bush when the time comes, or would any such efforts prove counter-productive? Vice Premier Shimon Peres made the government's position very clear last week when in his speech at Herzliya he said: "We are not yet in 1938 and Hitler can't come." Without mentioning any names, it was clear to all present where this remark was directed. Likud Leader Binyamin Netanyahu has been repeating this mantra at every opportunity for the last six months: "It's 1938. Iran is Germany and is preparing atomic weapons." Netanyahu might be head of the opposition but he is currently Israel's most voluble spokesman when it comes to the Iranian issue, leading initiatives such as the attempt to charge Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with incitement to genocide at the International Court at The Hague. Perhaps surprisingly, Netanyahu hasn't criticized the government for its low-profile policy over Iran while government spokesmen, Peres's comment aside, haven't openly attacked Netanyahu for pursuing his own personal diplomatic agenda. This rare modus vivendi between the two rival political sides indicates a tacit agreement between the two. While the government can't be seen to be forcing the US administration's hand, it doesn't view Netanyahu's efforts as a totally bad thing. Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself seems to have some sympathy for the government's constraints.