(Updates with comments by Khamenei in eighth paragraph, Senate legislation in 10th.)
Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Israel are publicly disagreeing over timing for a potential attack on Iran’s disputed nuclear facilities, as that nation’s leader said it won’t back down.
The U.S. and Israel have a “significant analytic difference” over estimates of how close Iran is to shielding its nuclear program from attack, Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration, said today.
“There’s a growing concern -- more than a concern -- that the Israelis, in order to protect themselves, might launch a strike without approval, warning or even foreknowledge,” he said in an interview.
The differing views were underscored by public comments this week by senior Israeli and U.S. defense officials.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that Israel must consider conducting “an operation” before Iran reaches an “immunity zone,” referring to Iran’s goal of protecting its uranium enrichment and other nuclear operations by moving them to deep underground facilities such as one at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
“The world has no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program is steadily nearing readiness and is about to enter an immunity zone,” Barak said in an address to the annual Herzliya Conference at the Interdisciplinary Center campus north of Tel Aviv. “If the sanctions don’t achieve their goal of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, there will arise the need of weighing an operation,” Barak said.
The U.S. holds the view that “there is still time and space to pursue diplomacy” with Iran over its nuclear program, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said today in Washington. He added that the U.S. “is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that his nation won’t abandon its nuclear efforts and warned that a strike against the nuclear program would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East “10 times over,” according to the Associated Press. He said, without providing details, that he would disclose a letter that he said President Barack Obama sent Iran’s leaders.
Referring to Israel as a “cancerous tumor,” Khamenei said in his Friday sermon that “if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will help.” He said that Iran has assisted anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.
The U.S. Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved yesterday a bill that would increase the economic pressure on Iran. The proposal targets Iran-related banking transactions, Iran’s national oil company and leading tanker fleet, joint ventures in mining and energy projects. It also would require corporate disclosure of Iran-related activity to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
One provision calls on the administration to provide a report to Congress within 60 days detailing Iran-related financial transactions facilitated by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the Belgian member-owned institution known as Swift, and its competitors. The measure would give the president authority to sanction Swift to cut off such services. A similar bill, with stronger language mandating the imposition of sanctions, was submitted in the House yesterday.
Within Israel, there isn’t consensus that striking Iran is either good or necessary. Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad security agency, is one of two former intelligence chiefs who have spoken against a strike.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declined to comment directly on a report by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June. Panetta and other U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Israel not to act alone.
“Israel has indicated that they’re considering this” through public statements, Panetta told reporters traveling with him yesterday in Brussels. “And we have indicated our concerns.”
Israelis think Iran will reach the immunity zone in “half the time the Americans think it will,” Miller said. “To take that difference and talk about a growing rift” between Israel and the U.S. “is by and large an overstatement,” he said.
Tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be complicating communications on the issue, a U.S. defense official said. “There’s no love lost between the two of them, and there’s a trust deficit,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the news media.
Defense officials have been concerned that Obama hasn’t warned Netanyahu directly enough about the risks of a Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, including for U.S. interests in the region such as bases in in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, according to the official.
James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Jan. 31 that communication with Israel was good. “We’re doing a lot with the Israelis, working together with them,” he told the Senate intelligence panel.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has said it is “premature” to resort to military force because sanctions are starting to have an impact on Iran. In a Jan. 26 interview with National Journal, Dempsey said he delivered a similar message of caution to Israel’s top leadership during a visit to the Jewish state in early January.
U.S. intelligence agencies think Iran is developing capabilities to produce nuclear weapons “should it choose to do so,” said Clapper.
“We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” he said.
While leaders of both countries agree that time must be given to gauge the impact of the latest set of economic sanctions on Iran, Israel’s patience is shorter than that of the U.S., Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said.
“It will take at least six months to see whether sanctions are effective and by then it may be too late,” said Kam, author of the 2007 book, “A Nuclear Iran: What Does it Mean, and What Can be Done.”
“We’re definitely using different clocks,” he said.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz told the Herzliya conference on Feb. 1 that his nation must be “willing to deploy” its military assets because Iran may be within a year of gaining nuclear weapons capability. Gantz said international sanctions are starting to show some results.
Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s vice prime minister and its former top military commander, played down Iran’s ability to shelter its activities from a military attack. “It’s possible to strike all Iran’s facilities, and I say that out of my experience as IDF chief of staff,” he said at the conference, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces.
The U.S., its European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have challenged the government in Tehran to prove that its nuclear work is intended only for energy and medical research, as Iranian officials maintain.
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview that he doubts that the U.S. or Iran will launch a military strike this year. Rather, he cited the possibility than Iran might stage a provocation and use any response as an excuse to launch an asymmetrical attack against U.S. and Israel targets using proxies such as Hezbollah.
--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Calev Ben- David in Jerusalem and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Larry Liebert
To contact the reporters on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at email@example.com; Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at firstname.lastname@example.org
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