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Obama officials talk tough on Iran ahead of Netanyahu visit

Published: March 1, 2012 | 8:36 am
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Most significant difference between Jerusalem, Washington is where to draw the “red line”; US officials say Netanyahu unconvinced of US resolve to stop Iranian proliferation.

Obama administration officials are escalating warnings that the US could join Israel in attacking Iran if the Islamic republic doesn’t dispel concerns that its nuclear-research program is aimed at producing weapons.

Four days before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Washington, US Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told reporters that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict.

“What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area,” Schwartz told reporters in Washington Wednesday.

Pentagon officials said military options being prepared start with providing aerial refueling for Israeli planes and also include attacking the pillars of the clerical regime, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Quds Force, regular Iranian military bases and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Pentagon plans are classified.

“There’s no group in America more determined to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon than the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army General Martin Dempsey told the House Budget Committee yesterday. “I can assure you of that.”

Separately, unnamed US officials told The Washington Post that US military planners are increasingly confident that sustained attacks with the Air Force’s 30,000-pound “bunker-buster” bombs could put Iran’s deeply buried uranium enrichment plant at Fordo out of commission.

Meetings are failing

The latest American warnings of possible military action against Iran come after a series of meetings between top Israeli and Obama administration officials failed to resolve differences over when an attack would become necessary, according to officials of both countries who have participated in the discussions.

“Because there is uncertainty about the administration’s will to act in the Israelis’ minds, and more importantly in the Iranians’ minds, it’s very important that we don’t just say that all options are on the table, but also show that they are, by some overt means,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee and was one of the recent visitors to Israel, said in a telephone interview.

Other US officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because the discussions have been private and because the administration is trying to reassure Israel and its American supporters of its determination while also tamping down fears that are helping drive up oil prices.

Drawing the red line

The most significant difference between the US and Israel, said American officials, is where to draw the line on Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama administration officials have suggested that the trigger for military action should be a decision by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to enrich uranium beyond a current level of 20 percent that supports nuclear power generation to a weapons-grade level 85 or 90 percent.

US and Israeli intelligence officials said they agree that such a decision would be hard to detect until sometime after it had been made.

While their American counterparts are focused on enrichment, Israeli officials described Iran’s nuclear program as a three-legged stool that also includes efforts in different locations to develop a missile warhead capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, a trigger for nuclear explosions and other components of a nuclear device.

Targets being measured

While Israeli officials told the Americans that their ability to strike Iran is greater than most people recognize, Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo would be extremely difficult for the Israeli Air Force to destroy with its largest weapon, the 5,000-pound GBU-28.

Iran’s warhead and weaponization facilities at the military complexes at Parchin and Bidganeh and elsewhere are more vulnerable, at least for now, the Israeli officials said, according to Americans who met with them.

Iran barred inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from the Parchin site in February, and a still- unexplained Nov. 14 explosion at the Bidganeh missile base killed an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general.

The Israelis said what worries them is that Iran could complete work on warheads, triggers, neutron reflectors and the other ingredients of a nuclear weapon or move that work to harder-to-hit facilities.

Latest intelligence report

A recent US intelligence analysis concluded that, if Iran can get its centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium and assemble in different locations the 33-44 pounds (15-20 kilograms) of material needed for a weapon, a delivery system and other necessary components, it could build a nuclear weapon in two months, said two US officials who have read the analysis.

Further underscoring the timing issue, US and Israeli officials have concluded that Iran might be content with a computer test of a new weapon rather than detonating one in the desert, thanks in part to confidence inspired by what they said is significant North Korean assistance. These officials also spoke only on the basis of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.

The American officials said their Israeli counterparts are less inclined than the Obama administration is to give the toughening economic sanctions on Iran more time to work for a second reason: They are skeptical that sanctions can ever persuade Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Israel’s role

In different meetings with American counterparts in Washington, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Netanyahu, Barak and Tamir Pardo, the head of Mossad, argued that only Israeli military action prevented Iraq and Syria from going nuclear.

They also argued that witnessing the dictators of non-nuclear Iraq and Libya toppled by or with Western assistance, coupled with a deep sense that Shi’ite Muslim Persia is entitled to a weapon that Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Hindus, Russia and China all possess may reinforce Iran’s intentions of continuing to develop a weapon.

High-level visitors have included Barak, Pardo, US Vice President Joe Biden, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director David Petraeus, Dempsey, US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, White House adviser Dennis Ross, Rogers and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the US House Intelligence Committee.

Israel questions US resolve

These talks have failed to dispel Israeli doubts that US President Barack Obama is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, the American officials said. Barak described a meeting with Panetta yesterday only as “important and useful.”

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, the US officials reported, said they don’t think Iran is convinced of Obama’s determination, either. They said they base that on the administration’s continued emphasis on sanctions.

Responding to a question during a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing yesterday about concerns Israel might attack Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “Let’s focus on economic sanctions that we have the world behind right now. We believe we’re making progress on the sanctions front.”

‘US reinforcing an image of weakness’

Still, the Israeli officials also have told their US counterparts they think the Iranians see what they consider a pattern of irresolute administration behavior that includes abandoning former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, taking only a supporting role in the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, indecision on how to deal with violence in Syria and a rush to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan in response to domestic political pressures.

Finally, the Israelis told some US officials that the administration’s failure to retaliate against Iran for plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US and its inability to get Egypt to free the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is one of 16 American pro-democracy activists charged with operating without government permission, has reinforced an image of American weakness.

Some Republicans share those doubts. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Obama administration should be “more clear” in its determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

“The intelligence community is uncertain about Iranian intentions,” Graham told reporters at a news conference yesterday. ”You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out.”

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