For the past 24 hours, news outlets have feverishly reported on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s belief, as first reported by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, that “there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.” The views attributed to Panetta were quickly echoed by Israeli officials. But the appearance of a consensus that Israel has already decided to bomb Iran is undermined by various statements from U.S. and Israeli officials.
Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, speaking at the Herzliya conference on Thursday, boasted that all of Iran’s nuclear facilities “can be hit, and I speak from experience as the IDF chief of staff,” and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at Herzliya later in the day, warned that there is a consensus among many nations that “a nuclear Iran will be more complicated to deal with, more dangerous and more costly in blood than if it were stopped today.”
While Panetta’s reported views, along with those of senior Israeli officials speaking at Herzliya, were interpreted by many as evidence of an emerging consensus that Israel will attack Iranian nuclear facilities before June — when Iran enters what Israelis describe to Ignatius as a “‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb” — U.S. and Israeli officials are not in agreement on the inevitability of an Israeli attack.
Panetta, speaking in Brussels yesterday, refused to comment on Ignatius’s column but told reporters that “Israel has indicated they are considering this, and we have indicated our concerns.” The Associated Press reported Panetta’s comments in an article emphasizing that “Israel’s major allies in the West are working hard to talk it out of a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing forcefully that an attack ultimately would strengthen, not weaken, the regime in Tehran.” And in a seeming effort to deter an attack, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey reportedly warned Israeli leaders last month that the U.S. would not participate in a war against Iran initiated by Israel.
U.S. defense officials are not alone in expressing serious misgivings about an Israeli attack. While Ya’alon, Barak and Panetta’s comments dominated news coverage yesterday, The Independent reported that almost the entire hierarchy of Israel’s military and security establishment is concerned about the consequences from a premature Israeli attack on Iran, according to Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Lipkin-Shahak, in comments starkly contrasting with Ya’alon and Barak’s hawkish warnings at Herzliya, warned that there had been little analysis of what happens the “day after” Israel strikes Iran and “It is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] leadership do not support military action at this point.”
Earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper advocated that economic pressure could dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon and CIA Director David Petraeus urged policymakers to examine the current and upcoming IAEA reports to determine Iran’s nuclear intentions. The IAEA has said it has concerns about military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and inspectors returned from a monitoring trip to Iran this week. But with reports of inspectors not receiving full access to sites mentioned in the IAEA’s November report, Tehran will be under heightened pressure to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency during its next trip to Iran later this month.