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Spinning Obama's "Persuasion" of Israel

Spinning Obama's "Persuasion" of Israel

By Jed Babbin - August 24, 2010

Though US intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program is notoriously lacking, the Obama administration is working to create a media narrative that credits its intelligence expertise with deterring an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Convinced of its own power of persuasion, the administration's new narrative credits its ability to affect Israeli policy on the basis of "new" intelligence assessments and unsupported assumptions about future intelligence gathering.

There are two substantial problems with the administration's narrative. First is the inadequacy of current intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program and the assumed reliability of future intelligence on it; second is the Obama administration's lack of credibility with Israel.

The new narrative was launched Thursday in a New York Times leak (appearing briefly on the Drudge Report) that the Times would reveal Obama's latest thinking about Iran the following day. The Friday New York Times report said the Obama administration has succeeded in persuading Israel to delay any attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program for at least a year.

The report says that US officials, based on intelligence collected over the past year, believe that technological problems would prevent Iran from completing a "dash" to build a nuclear weapon for another year or more.

The Times report said, "American officials said the United States believed international inspectors would detect an Iranian move toward breakout within weeks, leaving a considerable amount of time for the United States and Israel to consider military strikes."

Two very senior intelligence community sources have told me - consistently for more than four years -- that we lack adequate sources to have any confidence in our knowledge of Iran's progress toward nuclear arms. The only new source of intelligence revealed to the public is Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed to have defected to the US and then, after talking to the CIA, decided to return to Iran earlier this year. Without corroboration (which my sources imply is lacking) Amiri's information cannot be relied upon.

How can the Obama administration flatly tell the Israelis that future intelligence would reveal a "dash" to building a nuclear weapon within weeks of its occurrence when that assertion contradicts directly what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on "Meet the Press" on April 11. (Keep in mind that Amiri's defection occurred months earlier and was revealed weeks before Gates spoke.)

Gates appeared on the show with Secretary of State Clinton. Clinton - asked if Iran was "nuclear capable" now, i.e. if they were capable of building a nuclear weapon - said, "...that's an issue upon which intelligence services still differ."

Gates stated flatly that Iran isn't now "nuclear capable." Host David Gregory next asked Gates if being nuclear capable is just as dangerous as being a "nuclear state", i.e., having nuclear weapons. Gates responded:

"Only in this respect:  how you differentiate.  How far, how far have they gone?  If they--if their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled?  So it becomes a serious verification question, and I, I don't actually know how you would verify that."

This statement by Gates and the Times report that Obama administration officials believe international inspectors would detect an Iranian dash to build a bomb "within weeks" cannot be reconciled. Given Gates's comprehensive lack of confidence in our ability to gather the essential intelligence, it is inconceivable that the Israelis would be persuaded to bet their nation's existence on the future performance of those same agencies.

Combined with the Gates statement, events surrounding the Times story leave its credibility in tatters. Within the past two weeks, both Russia and China have announced that they will continue to supply Iran with gasoline in massive quantities, mooting the new round of UN sanctions. According to other news reports, Iran has enacted a new law mandating the production of higher-enriched uranium and announced that it would begin building a third enrichment plant next year. Only last weekend Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant was being fueled and brought online by Russian technicians.

The Times's eagerness to adopt the White House narrative begins with the lead sentence. It uses the past tense: that the Obama administration "has persuaded" Israel that the Iranian nuclear threat is at least a year in the future. No named or unnamed Israeli official is cited to support this assertion.

Israel rightly believes that Iran's nuclear weapons program is an existential threat. Iran has, too many times, said that it would wipe Israel off the map. Nothing the Obama administration says can counteract that because President Obama's credibility with Israel is as weak as the Times's story.

For almost two years, President Obama has used every diplomatic tool at his disposal to strengthen US ties to the Islamic world, often at Israel's expense. His administration's strongest statements and actions have been against Israel on issues ranging from construction of new Israeli homes in Jerusalem to pressure to engage in direct talks with the Palestinians.

In contrast are Obama's "open hand" policy toward Iran, his nomination of an ambassador - our first in at least five years - to Syria and his reported collaboration with Egypt on an international resolution saying the Middle East is a "nuclear free zone," which is aimed at Israel's nuclear weapons program.

Obama's attitude toward Israel is reminiscent of the British and French governments' attitudes toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 when they combined to pressure the Czechs into surrendering the Sudetenland to Germany.

The difference here is that though Chamberlain and Daladier did get the Czechs to agree to their terms, there is no reason to believe that Obama's effort has "persuaded" Israel that Iran should be allowed another year to pursue its nuclear program undisturbed. There is every reason to believe that the Israelis will attack Iran as soon as they believe they can defend themselves adequately against the inevitable counterattack.

Regardless of the Times's spin, Obama's "persuasion" of Israel only increases the pressure on the Netanyahu government, and makes the attack on Iran more likely.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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