Rumours of war: Israel, (and US, UK) versus Iran

November 2, 2011
Sarah Benton

UK military steps up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears

British officials consider contingency options to back up a possible US action as fears mount over Tehran’s capability

Nick Hopkins, Guardian,

Britain’s armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran amid mounting concern over Tehran’s nuclear enrichment programme, the Guardian has learned.

The Ministry of Defence believes the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities. British officials say that if Washington presses ahead it will seek, and receive, UK military help for any mission, despite some deep reservations within the coalition government.

In anticipation of a potential attack, British military planners are examining where best to deploy Royal Navy ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles over the coming months as part of what would be an air- and sea-launched campaign.

The Guardian has spoken to a number of Whitehall and defence officials over recent weeks who said Iran was once again becoming the focus of diplomatic concern after the revolution in Libya.

They made clear the US president, Barack Obama, has no wish to embark on a new and provocative military venture before next November’s US election. But they warned the calculus could change because of mounting anxiety over intelligence gathered by western agencies, and the more belligerent posture that Iran appears to have been taking.

One senior Whitehall official said the regime had proved “surprisingly resilient” in the face of sanctions, and sophisticated attempts by the west to cripple its nuclear enrichment programme had been less successful than first thought.

He said Iran appeared to be “newly aggressive – and we are not quite sure why”, citing three recent assassination plots on foreign soil that the intelligence agencies say were co-ordinated by elements in Tehran.

On top of that, the agencies now believe Iran has restored all the capability it lost in a sophisticated cyber-attack last year.

The Stuxnet computer worm, thought to have been engineered by the Americans and Israelis, sabotaged many of the centrifuges the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.

Up to half of Iran’s centrifuges were disabled by Stuxnet or were thought too unreliable to work, but diplomats believe this capability has now been recovered, and the International Atomic Energy Authority believes it may even be increasing.

Ministers have also been told that the Iranians have been moving some new, more efficient centrifuges into the heavily fortified military base dug beneath a mountain at the city of Qom.

The concern is that the centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium for use in weapons, are now so well protected within the site that missile strikes may not be able to reach them. The senior Whitehall source said the Iranians appeared to be shielding “material and capability” inside the base.

Another Whitehall official, with knowledge of Britain’s military planning, said that within the next 12 months Iran may have hidden all the material it needs to continue a covert weapons programme inside fortified bunkers. He said this had necessitated the UK’s planning being taken to a new level.

“Beyond [12 months], we couldn’t be sure our missiles could reach them,” the source said. “So the window is closing, and the UK needs to do some sensible forward planning. The US could do this on their own but they won’t. So we need to anticipate being asked to contribute. We had thought this would wait until after the US election next year, but now we are not so sure. President Obama has a big decision to make in the coming months because he won’t want to do anything just before an election.”

Another source added there was “no acceleration towards military action by the US, but that could change”. Next spring could be a key decision-making period, the source said.

The MoD has a specific team considering the military options against Iran. The Guardian has been told that planners expect any campaign to be predominantly waged from the air, with some naval involvement, using missiles such as the Tomahawks, which have a range of 800 miles. There are no plans for a ground invasion, but “a small number of special forces” may be needed on the ground, too.

The RAF could also provide air-to-air refuelling and some surveillance capability, should it be required. British officials say any assistance would be cosmetic: the US could act on its own but would prefer not to.

An MoD spokesman said: “The British government believes that a dual track strategy of pressure and engagement is the best approach to address the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and avoid regional conflict. We want a
negotiated solution – but all options should be kept on the table.”

The MoD says there are no hard-and-fast blueprints for conflict but insiders concede that preparations at headquarters and at the Foreign Office have been under way for some time.

One official said: “I think that it is fair to say that the MoD is constantly making plans for all manner of international situations. Some areas are of more concern than others.

“It is not beyond the realms of possibility that people at the MoD are thinking about what we might do should something happen on Iran. It is quite likely that there will be people in the building who have thought about what we would do if commanders came to us and asked us if we could support the US. The context for that is straightforward contingency planning.”

Washington has been warned by Israel against leaving any military action until it is too late. Western intelligence agencies say Israel will demand that the US act if Jerusalem believes its own military cannot launch successful attacks to stall Iran’s nuclear programme. A source said the “Israelis want to believe that they can take this stuff out”, and will continue to agitate for military action if Iran continues to play hide and seek.

It is estimated that Iran, which has consistently said it is interested only in developing a civilian nuclear energy programme, already has enough enriched uranium for between two and four nuclear weapons.

Experts believe it could be another two years before Tehran has a ballistic missile delivery system. British officials admit to being perplexed by what they regard as Iran’s new aggressiveness, saying that they have been shown convincing evidence that Iran was behind the murder of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in May, as well as the audacious plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which was uncovered last month. “There is a clear dotted line from Tehran to the plot in Washington,” said one.

The International Atomic Energy Authority is due to publish its latest report on Iran this month. Earlier this year, it reported that it had evidence Tehran had conducted work on a highly sophisticated nuclear triggering technology that could only be used for setting off a nuclear device. It also said it was “increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organisations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Last year, the UN security council imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran to try to deter Tehran from pursuing any nuclear ambitions.

Last weekend, the New York Times reported that the US was looking to build up its military presence in the region, with one eye on Iran. According to the paper, the US is considering sending more naval warships to the area, and is seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Netanyahu trying to persuade cabinet to support attack on Iran

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who previously objected to attacking Iran, was recently persuaded by Netanyahu and Barak to support such a move.

By Barak Ravid, Amos Harel, Zvi Zrahiya and Jonathan Lis, Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are trying to muster a majority in the cabinet in favor of military action against Iran, a senior Israeli official has said. According to the official, there is a “small advantage” in the cabinet for the opponents of such an attack.

Netanyahu and Barak recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who previously objected to attacking Iran, to support such a move.

Although more than a million Israelis have had to seek shelter during a week of rockets raining down on the south, political leaders have diverted their attention to arguing over a possible war with Iran. Leading ministers were publicly dropping hints on Tuesday that Israeli could attack Iran, although a member of the forum of eight senior ministers said no such decision had been taken.

Senior ministers and diplomats said the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report, due to be released on November 8, will have a decisive effect on the decisions Israel makes.

The commotion regarding Iran was sparked by journalist Nahum Barnea’s column in Yedioth Ahronoth last Friday. Barnea’s concerned tone and his editors’ decision to run the column under the main headline (“Atomic Pressure” ) repositioned the debate on Iran from closed rooms to the media’s front pages.

Reporters could suddenly ask the prime minister and defense minister whether they intend to attack Iran in the near future and the political scene went haywire.

Western intelligence officials agree that Iran is forging ahead with its nuclear program. Intelligence services now say it will take Iran two or three years to get the bomb once it decides to (it hasn’t made the decision yet ).

According to Western experts’ analyses, an attack on Iran in winter is almost impossible, because the thick clouds would obstruct the Israel Air Force’s performance.

Netanyahu did not rule out the possibility of the need for a military action on Iran this week. During his Knesset address on Monday, Netanyahu warned of Iran’s increased power and influence. “One of those regional powers is Iran, which is continuing its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would constitute a grave threat to the Middle East and the entire world, and of course it is a direct and grave threat on us,” he said.

Barak said Israel should not be intimidated but did not rule out the possibility that Israel would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I object to intimidation and saying Israel could be destroyed by Iran,” he said.

“We’re not hiding our thoughts. However there are issues we don’t discuss in public … We have to act in every way possible and no options should be taken off the table … I believe diplomatic pressure and sanctions must be brought to bear against Iran,” he said.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he preferred an American military attack on Iran to an Israeli one. “A military move is the last resort,” he said.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has not made his mind up yet on the issue. In a speech to Shas activists in the north on Monday Yishai said “this is a complicated time and it’s better not to talk about how complicated it is. This possible action is keeping me awake at night. Imagine we’re [attacked] from the north, south and center. They have short-range and long-range missiles – we believe they have about 100,000 rockets and missiles.”

Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor said he supports an American move against Iran. In an interview to the Walla! website some two weeks ago Meridor said “It’s clear to all that a nuclear Iran is a grave danger and the whole world, led by the United States, must make constant efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The Iranians already have more than four tons of 3-4 percent enriched uranium and 70 kgs. of 20 percent enriched uranium. It’s clear to us they are continuing to make missiles. Iran’s nuclearization is not only a threat to Israel but to several other Western states, and the international interest must unite here.”

Former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said he feared a “horror scenario” in which Netanyahu and Barak decide to attack Iran. He warned of a “rash act” and said he hoped “common sense will prevail.”

On Tuesday, Barak said at the Knesset’s Finance Committee that the state budget must be increased by NIS 7-8 a year for five years to fulfill Israel’s security needs and answer the social protest. “The situation requires expanding the budget to enable us to act in a responsible way regarding the defense budget considering the challenges, as well as fulfill some of the demands coming from the Trajtenberg committee,” he said.

Barak ‘compromised state security

Senior state official says defense minister isn’t interested in attacking Iran, but forcing issue onto public agenda to justify his gov’t role

Attila Somfalvi, Ynet news

A senior state official accused Defense Minister Ehud Barak of compromising state security by pushing a possible Israeli strike on Iran onto the public agenda.

“It was a cynical and irresponsible move that compromises the security of the State of Israel,” the source told Ynet.

“(Barak) has briefed quite a few senior reporters lately in an attempt to convince them that an attack on Iran is the right decision,” the official added. “This is how he brought the issue onto the agenda in an unusual and irresponsible manner.”

According to the official, the defense minister’s pursuit of the issue has steered the state “into a system-wide delirium of unprecedented proportions and severity, which might draw in the entire Middle East.”

Barak not interested in attack’
The top official suggested that Barak might not be interested in military action against Iran, “but is playing this card in order to manipulate the prime minister and his advisors, thus justifying his role in the government.

“Without the Iranian issue, he has no right to exist in the government,” the official claimed.

If Barak was sincere in his support of the attack, the official asserted, he wouldn’t be briefing reporters or “generating spin” over the sensitive subject.

“Such issues are considered a top secret that few are privy to,” the official explained. “This why it isn’t logical and isn’t’ responsible for an Israeli defense minister to involve reporters or other people in the issue, while also supporting military action.”

While the public disc ourse on the possible strike on Iran gainedomentum, IAF fighter jets conducted a lengthy exercise in Sardinia, Italy, Ynet learned, a drill that was completed recently.

On Wednesday, the defense establishment tested its ballistic missile propulsion system out of the Palmachim Airbase, and Home front Command conducted a drill that simulated rocket attacks. The drill was expected to continue into Thursday.

Also on Wednesday, Iran’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hassan Fairouz Abadi responded to the alleged Israeli threat, warning that Tehran would retaliate with a “surprising punishment” if Israel decided to pursue such a “mistake.”

Nahum Barnea on Israeli strike on Iran
Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post featuring Nahum Barnea’s front page Yediot Achronot story warning of an Israeli attack on Iran. In that post, I didn’t delve into the actual contents of the article, which I’ll do now quoting several passages I’ve translated. First, the title of the Barnea article means literally “atomic pressure,” but in colloquial usage it means “enormous stress,” which also is apt to describe the situation today relating to a possible Israeli attack.

While I pointed out yesterday that a number of Israeli commentators have warned about ominous developments pointing to an attack, Barnea, being the consummate media-political insider, adds crucial new detail. He notes that the Israeli public has been distracted by other stories like the upcoming J14 social justice rally, the aftermath of Gilad Shalit’s release and Ilan Grapel’s release from Egyptian custody yesterday. Because of this and due to the enormous complication of the issue, Israelis have devoted little consideration to an attack on Iran. It’s not an issue that’s been properly debated in the body politic.

He also reflects on a dual, conflicted approach within the Israeli policymaking apparatus toward the prospect of war. Many point to previous attacks on Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear reactors which accomplished their mission without casualties and without negative fallout in the international sphere. They say attacking Iran is likely to follow the same scenario. Those like Meir Dagan, who argue that Iran is a different matter entirely, find it hard to gain traction because Israel has never endured the type of counter-attack of which the former Mossad chief warns. Thus, it’s hard to get a nation to focus on an outcome it’s never experienced. Israelis always seem to be fighting the last war rather than anticipating what may be new in the next one. This militates against creating awareness of the dangers of an Iran assault.

Barnea notes that while the current Israeli military-intelligence leadership opposes war as the previous one (which included Dagan) did, the latter was an experienced, tested group which carried its opinions into the boardroom with confidence and energy. The new group is liable to be much more tentative, as it is untested. That would leave room for the veterans of such internal battles, Bibi and Barak, to dominate the proceedings and steer it toward their desired outcome.

The Yediot columnist explains some of the subtleties of how the political and military echelons operate in Israel:

“In Israel, the division of labor on security matters is [ostensibly] clear: the political echelon decides, the operational level implements…But the process is more complex that what we are taught in civics lessons: the professional level is an equal partner in the discussions. It expresses its view not only on subjects that are within its realm of responsibility, but in every relevant subject that comes up. The lines of separation are blurred.

In actual practice, the prime minister cannot make a decision that entails risks if the defense minister, the chief of staff, the Mossad director and the GSS director, all of them or most of them, are opposed. Even if he enjoys the support of the majority of the security cabinet members, he would not dare. He will take into account that if the action fails, he is liable to arrive at the commission of inquiry naked and exposed, without documents that prove that he had the support of the professional level.

There is therefore great importance to the question of how the professional level expresses its view. Does it pound on the table, as Meir Dagan would do, or does it delicately and calmly express reservation? Is it an active player in the decision-making process or is it a minor player doing the bidding of its superiors?”

Barnea appraises the role of Bibi and Barak as political partners who reinforce each other’s judgments, for good or ill, through their symbiotic relationship:

”Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are the two Siamese twins of the Iranian issue. A rare phenomenon is taking place here in terms of Israeli politics: a prime minister and defense minister who act as one body, with one goal, with mutual backing and repeated heaping of praise on each other…They’re characterized as urging action. Netanyahu portrayed the equation at the beginning of his term as: Ahmadinejad is Hitler; if he is not stopped in time, there will be a Holocaust. There are some who describe Netanyahu’s fervor on this subject as an obsession: all his life he’s dreamed of being Churchill. Iran gives him with the chance. The popularity that he gained as a result of the Shalit deal hasn’t calmed him: just the opposite, it gave him a sense of power.

Barak does not use the same superlatives, but is urging military action: he is certain that just as Israel prevented nuclear projects in the past, it must prevent this one as well. This is both his strategy and legacy…There are those who suspect Barak of having personal motives: he has no party; he has no voters. A strike on Iran would be the big bang that would make it possible for Netanyahu to bring him into the top ten of the Likud in the next elections. This way he could continue to be defense minister.”

It’s a helluva reason to start a war, but I suppose wars have been started in the past for more selfish reasons, though it’s hard to think of many. And Barak is nothing if not self-important and self-aggrandizing. Most politicians, when they think of legacies think of treaties signed, edifices erected, laws passed. In the ancient past this may’ve been more common, but today in few countries do leaders think of a good war as their personal political legacy. It’s an indication of the pathology and impoverishment of latter-day Israel that Bibi and Barak would think in such terms.

How many contemporary leaders can you think of who single out Winston Churchill for admiration? And what does this say about Bibi that he worships Churchill? Is this truly, in anyone’s mind but Bibi and his far right followers, an era of existential doom and gloom like what the British leader faced on the verge of WWII? Further, if Bibi’s political instincts and historical outlook end up dragging Israel into war, don’t forget that it isn’t just Israel and Iran. It’s the entire region plus all the various allies and proxies involved (including the U.S. as Israel’s protector) who will go along for the ride. Is the world prepared to join Bibi in his crusade to liberate the Middle East from Iranian tyranny?

In a key related development, one of Ehud Barak’s most trusted advisors, a man with deep background in military intelligence, Amos Gilad, was asked to address the major points of Barnea’s article. He said that Israel faced many security threats that must be prioritized in importance. But any such evaluation would place the Iranian threat at the top of the list. If you know the minds of Israel security experts and generals, they’re not given to merely containing threats as we in the U.S. are. If you are Israel’s “top threat” it’s going to take you out. No if’s and’s or but’s.

This is from Ynetnews’ report:

”According to Gilad, Netanyahu ‘as the first who heard of Iran’s forecasted move on the nuclear missile path and he sees it as a massive threat. The defense minister understands the depth of the threat as well.’”

This entirely inaccurate portrait of the Iranian view of Israel also carries tremendous weight in making a decision to mount a military strike:

”Israel, he explained, has no place under the sun in the Iranian perspective. ‘[Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei says that Israel has no place. Iran believes that it needs to be an empire equal in strength to the United States. That is the motivation driving the development of Iran’s missile capabilities.’”

The false notion that Iran wants to be equal in power to the U.S. is, of course, meant to alarm Barack Obama and make him more sympathetic to an Israel attack.

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