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Leaks about Iran reflect internal US debate

JERUSALEM — The recent spate of leaks and reports from Washington about whether Israel will, or should, take military action against Iran, and what that would mean for the US, is a reflection of deep divisions on the matter inside the Bush administration, Israeli diplomatic and defense officials said Sunday, July 6.

The officials said that the two sides of the argument, the “hawkish camp,” led by US Vice President Dick Cheney, and the “dovish camp,” led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are leaking assessments about Israeli intent to further their own agendas, and in this regard using Israel as a “pawn” in their own political battles.

For instance, one official said, the recent remarks made by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen to the effect that an attack on Iran and a “third front” would be bad for US interests were aimed not merely at deterring Israel from action, but also at “handcuffing” those inside the administration who are supportive of military action.

One Israeli diplomatic official said that as the debate rages in Washington, it was clear that Israel would be unable to take military action without a green light from the US.

“Everyone understands that we could not take action without US approval,” the official said, “both because we would need to fly through airspace controlled by the US, and we would need their help in dealing with repercussions from any attack.”

The most direct air route to Iran is through Iraqi airspace, which is controlled by the US.

“We would need their help in carrying out the attack, and also afterward,” the official said.

“We would have to deal with possible military action from Hezbollah and Syria, and also diplomatic fallout. Don’t expect the world to clap if we attack Iran, and as a result oil prices spiral from $140 a barrel to $300 a barrel.”

The official said Israel would need US diplomatic cover to deal with the world’s condemnation, and possibly even sanctions, in the aftermath of a raid.

Although Israeli officials said they were not surprised by the various different assessments coming out of Washington, because they have long been aware of the internal divisions on this matter, they said they were slightly surprised by remarks made by Mullen about the “third front” because he had not issued these warnings in his meetings with top Israeli military brass during his visit to Tel Aviv last week.

At a press conference in Washington last week, Mullen said that “Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” adding that while he believed Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons the efforts needed to focus on diplomatic, financial and economic actions.

The Israeli officials said that the talks with Mullen had focused primarily on Iran, but had also dealt with other regional issues such as Hamas’s military buildup in Gaza and Hezbollah’s in Lebanon. They added, however, that the concern voiced by Mullen was real and reflected fears in Washington that a strike against Iran would destabilize the region and undermine America’s recent success in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Anthony H. Cordesman, an American national security analyst who served as a former national security assistant to presumptive Republic Party presidential nominee John McCain, said Sunday that the US is trying to pursue the diplomatic option with Iran over its nuclear program since it does not view the nuclear threat by the Islamic Republic as an “urgent” crisis.

“I think we are contemplating to do exactly what we said we are doing — which is to try to pursue diplomatic options, and the reasons are very simple: We do not see this as an urgent crisis in terms of Iran rapidly acquiring weapons or effective delivery systems,” said Cordesman in an address at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Cordesman, who also served as a former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, conceded that the US assessment on Iran’s nuclear program is at odds with Israeli intelligence estimates, and said that the whole issue is likely to be left to the next US President.

“If that assessment changes, it does differ from some Israeli experts, then our timing might change. But I suspect that is going to be an issue for President Obama or President McCain,” he said.

“In terms of US strikes on Iran, we have a contingency plan for virtually anything. And in this case, are we going to constantly have the ability to execute some kind of strike plan against Iran’s missiles and weapons of mass destruction, including its nuclear facilities? Yes. Are we about to execute it? No!

“The president of the US has said that, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state [and] the chairman of Joint Chiefs.”

A US intelligence report issued last year stated that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but continued to enrich uranium, which, nuclear experts say, is the hardest part of building a bomb.

Israeli intelligence believes that the American report is incorrect, and that the Islamic Republic has continued to work on its nuclear weapons program.




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