An Israeli strike on Iran is more unlikely in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week, a top Israeli defense official said Thursday.
According to the official, U.S. President Barack Obama told Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that at this time, the U.S. did not support a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. A source at the Prime Minister’s Office told Israel Hayom this week, “The importance of the visit in Washington was the mutual understanding that Israel may make a decision to launch an attack unilaterally.”
Netanyahu, who appeared on several Israeli TV channels Thursday night, talked about the time frame for a possible strike on Iran. “I don’t have a stopwatch in my hand,” Netanyahu said. “This is not a matter of days or hours, but neither is it a matter of years.”
Netanyahu also talked Thursday with newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Iranian issue and specifically on the resumption of talks between the Islamic republic and the West. “We would be happy to have things resolved peacefully; if Iran decides to abandon its nuclear program and to demolish the facilities in Qom and the enrichment facilities, if the sanctions work, if diplomacy and international pressure works – all the better,” he said.
Netanyahu also said that foregoing the military option would be irresponsible at this point. “We have no way of telling [if things will turn out that way]. We are not willing to accept a nuclear Iran,” he said. “Making a decision is not the problem; making the right decision is the key issue. If you fail to make a decision and you fail to prevent this [Iran’s nuclearization] -- to whom would you provide explanations? To historians? To the generations that preceded us? To the generations that will not succeed us?”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the National Journal on Thursday that an Israeli strike would not be as effective as a U.S.-led military intervention. “If they [the Israelis] decided to do it there’s no question that it would have an impact, but I think it’s also clear that if the United States did it we would have a hell of a bigger impact,” Panetta said in the interview.
Yochi J. Dreazen, who conducted the interview, wrote on the National Journal’s website that Panetta mentioned various contingency options his department had been working on “for a long time” should a military strike be necessary. The secretary also highlighted the U.S.’s military advantage in such an operation. “The U.S. has a much larger air force and an array of advanced weapons more powerful than any possessed by the Jewish state,” Dreazen said.
In an unusual statement, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei leveled praise at Obama for calling for diplomacy and sanctions rather than war. “These are positive statements that reflect a sober awakening,” the ayatollah said, but added that Obama “is wrong to think that the sanctions will make Iran isolated.” Obama told the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC this week that the U.S. viewed sanctions as the preferred means of pressuring Iran to change course.
Meanwhile, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on Thursday called on Tehran to follow through with its previous commitment and allow inspections at a military site in Parchin. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, believes Iran may have tested a detonator device for a nuclear bomb at the site and subsequently disguised the area to hide any traces of the testing.
Iranian officials have said this week they would allow inspections at the site only after agreement was struck on a whole host of issues, but sources at the nuclear watchdog agency say that Iran is trying to play for time to cover up evidence of nuclear-related activity at Parchin.
Iran’s ambassador to France was quoted Thursday as saying, “Iran cannot be denied the right to enrich uranium.” Iran’s envoy to Lebanon also commented on the international pressure on his country, saying Thursday that should an attack be launched on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities, “Iran will respond accordingly against U.S. and Israeli targets.”
Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney denied reports in the Israeli media that Obama had offered Netanyahu a deal in which Israeli would hold off any attack on Iran until the end of 2012 and in exchange the U.S. would grant it advanced massive ordnance penetrators (commonly referred to as bunker-busters) and special refueling planes, both of which would be crucial if Israel was to embark on a mission to destroy Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.
“In the meetings the president had there was no such agreement proposed or reached. We have obviously, as we’ve discussed, high-level cooperation between the Israeli military and the U.S. military and at other levels in -- with other agencies within their government and our government. But that was not a subject of discussion in the president’s meetings,” Carney said during the daily White House press briefing on Thursday. “There is agreement between this administration, this government and the Israeli government on what Iran is doing and where it [Iran] is in the process of its nuclear program.”
Carney added that the political inspection regime was working. “We have inspectors on the ground, as you know – the IAEA does – so we have visibility into what they’re doing,” he said. “And there is great coordination between this government and the Israeli government, between our militaries and between our intelligence officials. And that will continue.”
In Israel, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reiterated his belief that an attack on Iran right now would be unwise. “An attack on Iran before exploring all other options is not the right thing to do,” he said in an interview with the weekly television news magazine 60 Minutes, excerpts of which were released on Thursday. Dagan further said that there was still time before a decision had to be made. He said the regime in Iran was a “very rational regime” and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad too, was “rational, not exactly our [definition of] rational, but I think that he is rational.”
According to Dagan, the Iranian nuclear program should be an international issue and not solely limited to an Israel-Iran clash. Ideally, he added, if an attack materialized, it should be led by the U.S.