While the Israeli government considers the Bush administration highly sympathetic and sensitive to its security concerns, there are growing signs that Washington and Jerusalem may be diverging in their analysis of the urgency of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and its defensive military preparations for countering a possible strike, and their subsequent prospective timelines for considering possible military action against Iran. While Israeli national security experts say that Israel would not act without coordinating with the US, and there are other significant factors weighing against prospective Israeli military action on Iran before the Bush term ends, there are also emerging differences between the US and Israel on the accepted intelligence over when Iran would be considered to have a nuclear breakthrough, as well as what would constitute a "redline" that would prompt military action, Washington analysts say. In addition, the US, unlike Israel, feels more deeply constrained by the considerable investment it has made in blood and treasure in stabilizing Iraq, which could be risked by the tumult that could follow military action on Iran.
"My sense is the Pentagon would be worried or opposed to an Israeli attack," says David Wurmser, former Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, who left the White House job late last summer. "They are afraid it would inflame the situation in Iraq, which could undermine the US position there.
"Ultimately, my gut tells me that most of the administration on most levels would push back very hard," on Israeli pressure on Washington to authorize it to strike Iran, Wurmser added. "What those in the administration who don't want Israel to act probably won't want is for it to be taken to the highest level. They would always be afraid that [the president] might not be so tough on the Israelis. If the Israeli [government] really intends to do something, they would go to the highest level without a lot of people knowing."
Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen visited Israel, during which Mullen is reported to have told Israeli leaders that, speaking for the highest levels of the Bush administration, they did not have a green light from Washington for military action on Iran. Now, Mother Jones has learned, a parade of senior Israeli government officials is making its way to Washington over the coming two weeks, to discuss the Iran issue with top Bush administration officials. Among those scheduled to arrive, Mother Jones has confirmed with Israeli sources in Washington and Israel: Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, who departs Israel Monday for meetings in Washington with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Pentagon officials; and the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who comes the following week on his first visit to Washington in that position. A former Pentagon intelligence official who spoke with Mother Jones also alleges that Meir Dagan, the chief of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, held secret meetings with officials in the White House on Wednesday. Neither the Israeli embassy nor National Security Council would comment on whether Dagan had been at the White House.
US sources who did not wish to be identified describe a disagreement between the US and Israeli intelligence communities over the timetable of Iran's alleged weaponization and research and development efforts. Nuclear analysts at Livermore nuclear facility crunched the numbers and looked at the information on Iran's centrifuges and concluded that they are sticking to the public estimates in the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which forecast Iran could have enough enriched material for nuclear weapons capability in the mid next decade. The Israelis allegedly presented the US with Iranian weaponization evidence that they consider very credible, which the US intelligence community allegedly did not consider credible. Analysts also say Israel and the US are drawing different definitions and redlines about what they consider would be Iran's nuclear "breakout" capability.
"The last report from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA suggested that the Iranians are making considerable advances, and could reach a stage of having a mass of material for breakout capability before terribly long," says Patrick Clawson, an Iran policy expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. How long? "It's hard to say. Iran already has fuel rods shipped by the Russians. If they decided to just take that material and run it through centrifuges, that activity would be very obvious.
"What most people concentrate on is when Iran would have 600 to 700 kilos of its own low enriched uranium, which is enough to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb," Clawson added. How long is that projected to take? Clawson: "If everything works perfectly, two months. If everything doesn't work perfectly, a bit longer. The answer would be the space of a few months.
"It certainly appears from the last [IAEA] report that Iran is on track to have enough kilos [of low enriched uranium to enrich to weapons grade] within a year—well within," Clawson added.