Iran Nuclear NewsAllies’ clocks tick differently on Iran

Allies’ clocks tick differently on Iran


ImageNew York Times: In the capitals of two staunch allies last week, top intelligence officials spoke about the nuclear threat from Tehran. Differences were clear.

The New York Times

Published: March 15, 2009

ImageIn the capitals of two staunch allies last week, top intelligence officials spoke about the nuclear threat from Tehran. Differences were clear.

“Iran has crossed the technological threshold,” the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told the cabinet in Jerusalem last Sunday, in words that were immediately leaked to the press. Now, he added, “its reaching military nuclear capabilities is a matter of adapting its strategy to the target of manufacturing a nuclear bomb.”

Days later in Washington, Adm. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, appeared before a Congressional committee and agreed that “there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis” over reports of Iranian nuclear progress. But he said the Israelis “take more of a worst-case approach to these things.”

Both men were reacting to, and interpreting, the United Nations’ confirmation last month that Iran after a quarter-century of effort had collected enough atomic material, in dilute form, to produce a bomb.

Israel and the United States have worried for years about what they would do at such a moment. Now that it has arrived, the passing of the milestone has forced into the open longstanding differences between the two allies about how urgently to treat the threat. As Admiral Blair implied, the nuclear-threat clock ticks a lot faster in Jerusalem than in Washington.

Where this new dynamic leads is unclear. But the Israelis have seized on the Iranian milestone to redouble pressure on the United States for a tougher stance against Iran, and to remind the new president that their patience has a limit. In fact, Israeli officials have quietly been delivering the message that the diplomacy Mr. Obama wants to start with Iran should begin promptly — and be over quickly. “By late spring or early summer,” one senior Israeli intelligence official said the other day, echoing a message delivered in Israel to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, they argue, the Iranians will drag talks on endlessly while speeding ahead on bomb work.

The Obama team, by contrast, is taking its time to craft a new diplomatic approach to Tehran, putting the veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross at the head of a team to set up what Mr. Obama last year called a strategy of “bigger carrots and bigger sticks.” Real discussions may not begin until after Iran’s elections in June.

So Washington’s starting point for serious engagement may come at Israel’s declared endpoint for waiting — the time at which its officials say that, at the least, sanctions should be greatly stiffened.

All this is taking place a year after the Israelis went to the Bush White House in secrecy, seeking the bunker-busting bombs, the right to fly over Iraq and the refueling capability that they would need to take out Iran’s main enrichment plant at Natanz.

President Bush said no, and the Israelis withdrew the request, at least temporarily. To this day, some of Mr. Bush’s former aides say they are not certain whether the Israelis had made a decision to attack, were just seeking the hardware before a new administration took over, or were trying to push Mr. Bush to act before he left office. And that was before the latest Iranian achievement.

The Israelis and Americans agree on these essential points: International inspectors have found that Iran is enriching uranium faster than ever, and only a modest degree of further enrichment is needed to reach a bomb’s worth of fuel.

But from those same facts it is possible to draw either a dire scenario, as the Israelis do, or to declare, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did recently, that we’ve still got a few years before Iran can build an arsenal.

The strategic and political importance of such judgments may have figured in the recent protests raised by supporters of Israel in the United States at the prospect that Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia and at times an outspoken critic of Israeli policy, would become chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The council’s National Intelligence Estimates are considered the government’s final word on these issues. A much-criticized intelligence estimate on Iraq helped speed the invasion of that country in 2003, and an equally criticized assessment of Iran’s nuclear progress at the end of 2007 announced that Iranian work on producing a working weapon had been suspended — a conclusion that intelligence agencies are now reassessing.

In this world of murky conclusions, it is also often difficult to know, even among allies, who is bluffing and who means just what he is saying.

Israeli officials might have motives to persuade Washington that they could be ready to act alone, if necessary, even if they don’t really want to. That is one way to prompt an ally to act with harsh sanctions or, if needed, force.

Mr. Obama’s top aides suspect that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s likely next prime minister, will not risk acting alone. It would undercut his relationship with his most important ally before that relationship really gets going. But that’s a guess.

And if Israel is bluffing, it’s probably not alone.

At the root of the problem of how to respond to Iran’s nuclear progress is the inscrutability of Iran itself. The Iranians hid their nuclear work from inspectors for 18 years, and last spring, in arguing against an Israeli attack, the Americans cited the probability that many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are still hidden. The Israelis had argued that an attack would set back the nuclear program by at least three years; the Americans responded that its effect might last as little as six months.

Iran has often exaggerated its capabilities in order to make the case that its enrichment program, which it claims is for power plants, is irreversible. But it has also refused to answer questions that international inspectors have raised about other work, which seems to point to an intention to use the enriched uranium for bombs.

If Iran wanted to ease jitters, it could do something very simple: turn its enriched uranium into reactor fuel.

“We’d hope they’d do it unilaterally, and maybe they will,” R. Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said in an interview. So far, though, Iran has foregone that step and keeps the door open to further enrich a growing uranium supply. How fast it can do that has also become grist for debate, even among nuclear experts.

Iran Watch, part of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says the process would take only two or three months. By contrast, in a recent paper Mr. Kemp and his Princeton colleague Alexander Glaser put the figure between 9 and 36 months.

“In the race between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran, we would win,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis, a nuclear specialist at the New America Foundation, a research group in Washington. “We would cave in the roof before they got a bomb’s worth of material.”

For its part, the American intelligence community has estimated that Iran might have enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb late this year, but it put the more likely date as sometime between next year and 2015.

Iranian milestone or not, Admiral Blair is sticking to those numbers.

Ethan Bronner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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