'Israel attack on Iran could hurt US'

Strike would be profoundly destabilizing and would affect US interests, American official tells 'Post.'

robert gates 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
robert gates 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Amid reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is heading to Israel next week for talks on Teheran's nuclear program, a senior US defense official has told The Jerusalem Post that an Israeli strike on Iran could be profoundly destabilizing and would affect US interests. Israel needed to take its relationship with America into account in contemplating any such attack, he warned. Gates, who last week described the Islamic republic's nuclear drive as the greatest current threat to global security, is set to spend six hours here next Monday, discussing the Iranian threat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He will also visit Jordan, according to officials involved in planning the trip. In his interview with the Post at the Pentagon, the senior US defense official also suggested that Syria might be ready to "fundamentally" reorient its position toward the United States, which would include restarting talks with Israel, at a time when Hamas and Hizbullah have been put "on the defensive" by Obama administration policies and events in Iran. Those events, said the official, who insisted on anonymity, hadn't been seen to affect Iran's timeline on developing nuclear weapons. What was clear, he indicated, was the negative effect an Israeli strike would have. "A unilateral third-party attack on Iran's nuclear program could have profoundly destabilizing consequences, and it wouldn't just affect the general level of stability in the region. It would affect Israel's security and it would affect our interests, and the safety of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere," the official said, when asked if the US expected Israel to inform it of any decision to strike Iran. "It's a pretty big deal, and given the closeness of our relationship with Israel, I think we would hope that they would take those strategic calculations into account." His comments in the interview, conducted on Friday, came on the heels of conflicting signs from the Obama administration about whether it had given Israel a so-called "green light" to attack Iran, after Vice President Joe Biden said "Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else" on July 5. Obama clarified on CNN later in the week that he had "absolutely not" given Israel permission to strike Iran. The comments also followed a report in The Washington Times that Israel had not asked the US for permission for a possible military attack on Iran out of fear America would say no. The senior Pentagon official said Israel and the United States shared a similar estimate on the timeframe for Iran developing a nuclear weapon. He ascribed discrepancies in press accounts largely to differences in what deadline is being referenced, such as gaining nuclear capability versus building an actual bomb. "There may be some disagreement about how quickly the Iranians could weaponize," he noted of Israeli versus American assessments, "but the general timeframe about when the Iranians might cross a threshold of a nuclear weapons capability is broadly in that one-to-three year timeframe that the chairman [Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] has noted on a number of occasions." The official said that even with the turmoil in Iran, as opposition groups continue to protest a presidential election they believe is fraudulent, "We don't see any evidence that there's been a political decision made to accelerate or decelerate" the nuclear program. He did assess, though, that three scenarios were likely to emerge which would have implications for the nuclear program and the chances of success for America's efforts to engage Iran diplomatically on the subject. He said in two, the conservatives in the regime emerge successful in their crackdown but take different tacks afterwards. In the first case they could "hunker down" and focus on stamping out dissent, relating to the international community only as a "scapegoat" on which to blame all their internal problems. "If that's the scenario that plays out, it's going to be very difficult to have a successful diplomatic engagement with Iran," he said. But in the other case, the conservatives in power could feel the economic pinch of international isolation and decide to take steps not to alienate the West further. In this scenario, "rational calculators" in Iran could comprise a dominant faction "that pushes for actually a gradual improvement of relations with the West." The US official said it was "too early" to assess which scenario was more likely. He also allowed for the possibility of a third scenario of "muddle" to result instead, in which nothing about the government or its postures were clarified for quite some time. But one indicator that has emerged so far, he said, was that Teheran had not stoked its proxies, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, in the short term. Instead, he contended, the problems in Iran, the rejection of Hizbullah in the Lebanese elections, the Palestinian Authority's strides in the West Bank and Obama's overtures through the region were "all things that put Hamas and Hizbullah on the defensive." He continued, "In looking where the region was a year ago, you would have said that there was a lot of momentum on the side of Iran and its allies. I think if you would assess the situation right now, that the momentum is probably going in the opposite direction." He said that when it came to Syria, the US still hadn't seen "on the Hamas or Hizbullah front that there's been any improvement," and "we're approaching a time where it's pretty clear the Syrians need to start showing pretty concretely that they're ready to start changing their behavior, not just their words," though he did note the country's help in limited the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Still, he said, "There is a change in that Syria is increasingly willing to have a productive conversation with us" and "there's reason to be cautiously optimistic." He elaborated, "I think the Syrians have expressed a genuine desire that I think raises the possibility that they may be open to fundamentally changing their relationship with us and reentering the Arab fold." Part of that, he indicated, would include restarting peace talks with Israel that Damascus called off during the Gaza war this winter. In the meantime, though, he pointed to the serious threat facing Israel from the extremist groups that Syria supported, and stressed that America must be cognizant of that reality when it urged Israel to take steps toward peace, as well as translate that awareness into support for missile defense and other programs to help provide Israel a more secure environment. "One of the issues that's important as we're asking Israel to lean forward in the peace process is to recognize that from their perspective, there are risks associated with handing over territory and we need to work with them to address those risks so the Israeli government feels more confident in pursuing peace."