Sunday, January 11, 2009

U.S. Refused to Back Israeli Strike on Iran

In a piece in today's New York Times, David Sanger reports on some of the details behind the complicated balancing act between the United States and Israel, which teeters on attempts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program.

Some of the efforts have been circulating around for some time on different foreign policy blogs, but this piece-which comes ahead of a more detailed book by Sanger to be released this week-ties them together.

The bold-faced point, however, is that the U.S. not only refused to aid an Israeli attack, but took a number of steps to deter their action.

White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.

The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama.

In essence, the release of a 2007 intelligence report stating that Iran was further behind in it's efforts to build and deploy a nuclear warhead than previously believed, prompted to different reactions by the U.S. and Israel.

Israel-which believed the report to be inaccurate-saw the it as a sign the U.S. would not take its own military action, and thus stepped up its efforts to plan an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The plans reached the point of attack exercises over the Mediteranian and requesting bunker-buster bombs and permission to fly over Iraq from the U.S. None of the Israeli efforts to prod the U.S. into aiding their efforts panned out.

In the U.S., efforts turned towards non-military options. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others believed the military effort would bear little fruit: it was unlikely to deal a decisive blow, drive the Iranian further underground, and could spark even greater destabilization in the region. Instead they continue to pursue covert efforts to disrupt the Iranians ability to keep their program running: including disrupting the electrical infrastructure, computer network attacks, and the sabotage of key parts.

Despite the bellicose nature of the Bush administration in the first administration, it appears that they have taken a more nuanced and deliberate approach in recent years; combining international diplomatic efforts and strong-arm sanctions, as well as low-level covert actions that may delay functional capability.

The Obama administration will have a number of major issues on its plate beginning on day one, but at least a third war isn't one of them.

- Murphy

No comments: