Uncertainty on Israel's plans on Iran triggers US anxiety
BRUSSELS – The Obama administration is increasingly anxious about Israeli leaders' provocative public comments on Iran's nuclear program but does not have hard proof that it will strike Iran in the next few months, U.S. and European officials said.
The US uncertainty and lack of information about Israel's plans on Iran were behind an alarming assessment of the situation reportedly voiced by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the officials said.
Panetta believes there is a "strong likelihood" that Israel will strike Iran's nuclear installations this spring, the Washington Post said Thursday in an editorial.
When asked about the opinion piece by reporters travelling with him to a NATO meeting in Brussels, Panetta brushed it aside.
"I'm not going to comment on that. David Ignatius can write what he will but with regards with what I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else," he said.
"Israel indicated they're considering this (a strike), we've indicated our concerns," he added.
The Post columnist said Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June before Iran enters what Israelis described as a 'zone of immunity' to commence building a nuclear bomb."
President Barack Obama and Panetta are "said to have cautioned the Israelis that the United States opposes an attack, believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold," he said.
"But the White House hasn’t yet decided precisely how the United States would respond if the Israelis do attack."
Panetta said Sunday in an interview with CBS that Iran needed "about a year" to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, and one or two more years to "put it on a deliverable vehicle."
Iran insists its nuclear project is peaceful and has threatened retaliation over the fresh sanctions, including possibly disrupting shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Israeli media reported in October last year that the option of pre-emptive air strikes on Iran was opposed by the country's intelligence services but favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Israeli television said Mossad chief Tamir Pardo raised the possibility of a unilateral strike on Iran during a visit last week to Washington.
One of the U.S. officials said that while Israel may have the military capability to delay Iran's nuclear effort for a period of time, to deal the Iranian program a serious and long-term setback would require additional military power, presumably from the United States.
But Panetta's alleged remarks and other Obama administration's statements indicate the White House is focused on dissuading Israel from taking action - and distancing itself from an Israel strike if persuasion fails.
A strike on Iran and Iran's response, including attempts to close the Strait of Hormuz, which is vital for oil shipments, could seriously harm the U.S. economy, jeopardizing President Barack Obama's chances for re-election. Obama also would likely come under intense domestic pressure to back Israel's actions.
"The U.S. is not too excited about engaging with Israel or being part of anything at this point," one official said.
A European defense analyst, who has access to classified all-source intelligence, said that while Iran's behavior was relatively predictable, the greatest uncertainties facing the U.S. and its allies stemmed from Israel's stance.
Despite internal power squabbles, the analyst said, Iran has been "quite restrained and limited in its responses." Recent inflammatory comments by Iranian leaders, such as threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, were relatively low-intensity compared to other threats and physical confrontations in the Gulf of past years.
"Israel is, practically speaking, the wild card in the pack," the analyst said. "We have no specific information on when or if they will attack but based on their past history and current stance, it is something we do expect at some point."