Inter Press Service
Tensions rose recently between the Barack Obama administration and the Israeli government when a leading Israeli official claimed to have knowledge of U.S. intelligence that portrays Iran as a more immediate threat than Washington has been saying.
Israel has been urging the United States to take a more aggressive stance with Iran, while President Obama has maintained that sanctions and diplomacy must be given more time to work.
But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak touched off a controversy with the United States when he told Israel Radio that a new U.S. report “being passed around senior offices… comes very close to our own estimate… as opposed to earlier American estimates.
“It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear programme,” he said.
The Obama administration did not respond immediately, but later in the day a spokesman for the National Security Council stated that, “We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government. We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”
However, U.S. officials would not comment on whether there was a new intelligence assessment on Iran.
The issue of a possible military strike on Iran has become an increasingly heated topic in the United States as the presidential election in November draws closer and the campaigns move into higher gear.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Israel last month with the message that he would be a stronger supporter of Israel’s security than President Obama, pointing specifically at the Iranian threat.
For his part, Obama recently sent high-level officials to confer with Israeli leaders, signed a bill authorising additional security sales to Israel, and repeatedly assured the Israelis that he would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
In this atmosphere, a new U.S. intelligence assessment which says, in Barak’s words “that Iran has made surprising, significant progress toward military nuclear capability,” could significantly increase pressure on the Obama administration to take military action against Iran. Barak’s statement is a dramatic and unusual step in international diplomacy.
In 2007, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran shook up the George W. Bush administration by stating that Iran had halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In 2011, a new NIE reaffirmed that assessment.
An update to this part of the NIE is rumoured to have been completed, but the exact contents of the report are unknown.
However, back in January, James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, testified before the Congress, saying: “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
John R. Schindler, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote on his blog that, “(There are) a few possibilities. Barak and his government are playing one huge head-fake with Obama, whom they openly dislike, even though he just dumped more money on Israel.
“Or, they have seen (the update to the NIE) – how, exactly, this former counterspy wonders – and are diming out DC in a very tough game of hardball. Regardless, the rules of the spy game are clear and have been since Moses was a boy. When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”
Both Israeli and U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that they share intelligence with each other on Iran.
According to several sources with contacts in the U.S. administration, there was considerable anger in Washington over Barak’s statements. It is also unclear what Barak was referring to when he said that a new assessment “comes very close to our own estimate”.
Reports from Washington and Israel have repeatedly stated that Israeli and U.S. intelligence assessments on Iran’s nuclear abilities and research have been closely in tune all along.
However, in recent weeks, reports from Israel have indicated sharp divisions between the heads of the Israeli government, including Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli military and intelligence community. There is also sharp disagreement within Netanyahu’s government over whether or not to pursue a military strike on Iran.
The leading Israeli daily Yediot Ahoronot reported Friday that Barak had gathered the top military leaders on two separate occasions to rally them behind an Iran strike and met fierce opposition both times.
On Aug. 1, Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to numerous questions about opposition to an Iran strike on the parts of the Army chief of staff and the head of the intelligence agency, Mossad, did not deny such opposition, but merely said that, “In the Israeli democracy, the one to decide is the ministerial level, and the one to carry out the decision is the military. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
The reported similarity between U.S. and Israeli intelligence suggests that any gap between Barak’s view and that of the U.S. is similar to the gap between the top Israeli leadership and their own military and intelligence assessments and recommendations.
Mitchell Plitnick is a contributor to Inter Press Service.