Israel Faces Questions About News Reports of Eyeing Iran Strike

Isabel Kershner & David E. Sanger – New York Times November 4, 2011

Israel’s top leadership has spent the week answering and evading questions about widespread reports that it is once again considering a strike on Iran’s nuclear complexes, while President Obama said Thursday that he and his allies would maintain “unprecedented international pressure” on Tehran to keep it from producing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli officials would not confirm or deny multiple reports in the Israeli news media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were pressing for a decision on whether and when to strike a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the centerpiece of Iran’s known nuclear-fuel production, and related sites across the country.

Several Israeli ministers have publicly placed blame for the leaks on Meir Dagan, the former chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, who after leaving office this year said that Mr. Netanyahu was intent on launching such an attack, and had to be restrained by opposition from top intelligence and military officials, almost all of whom have since left office.

Mr. Dagan, who is believed to have played a central role in unleashing the Stuxnet computer worm that set back Iran’s nuclear efforts by disabling about a fifth of its nuclear centrifuges, has argued that military action is unlikely to do enough damage and could set off a new war in the Middle East.

Speaking to an audience in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, Mr. Dagan challenged the government to indict him. “Have I violated information security?” he asked. “Then let them prosecute me. Let them say, ‘Dagan has broken the law.’ I’ll get a good lawyer.”

Israel has debated the viability and effects of attacks many times in the past seven years, often to Washington’s consternation. Obama administration officials, in private conversations with the Israelis, have argued that the combination of economic sanctions and covert sabotage of the Iranian effort has been more effective than an attack could be, without the risk of provoking counterattacks or a war.

But the most recent debate has been prompted by the confluence of three events that has made the issue seem especially urgent in Israel, according to American officials who have been worried about whether Israel might conduct a surprise attack.

The first is Iran’s continued production of low- and medium-enriched uranium: it now has enough fuel for roughly four bombs, though producing them would require more time, more enrichment, and more risk of exposure. The second is Iran’s declaration that it is moving much of its production to a well-protected underground site near the holy city of Qum.

“The Israelis fear that once it’s moved underground they won’t have the ability to see it, or reach it,” one American official said recently.

But perhaps the most important event is a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, expected next week. For the first time, the agency is expected to describe, in detail, the evidence it has collected suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with warhead designs, nuclear detonation systems and specialized triggering devices that can be explained only as work on a nuclear weapon.

Iran has said the data is fabricated, and vowed to publish its own evidence of Western terrorist plots against Iran.

Mr. Obama and NATO allies, at a summit meeting in Cannes, France, have steered clear of any talk of military strikes, and said they remained focused on economic sanctions and other forms of diplomatic pressure, including enforcement of several United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand that Iran stop all uranium enrichment.

The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Thursday that “NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Iran, and NATO is not engaged as an alliance in the Iran question,” according to The Associated Press.

The British newspaper The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Britain’s armed forces were stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action along with the United States against Iran. The Guardian added that the British Ministry of Defense “believes the U.S. may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities.”

Mr. Obama discussed Iran on Thursday with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Obama told reporters that the International Atomic Energy Agency “is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week, and President Sarkozy and I agree on the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

One of his deputy national security advisers, Benjamin J. Rhodes, told reporters later that Mr. Obama’s comments had to be separated “from any type of speculation or hypothetical situation as it relates to military action.”

But at the same time he said the atomic energy agency’s report would probably renew the opportunity for “ratcheting up” sanctions that “have slowed the Iranian economy to a halt.”

“They’re the only treaty member of the NPT,” he said, referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, “that cannot convince the International Atomic Energy Agency that their program is peaceful. And that’s precisely why they’re facing the type of international pressure that they’re facing.”

The treaty also applies to five powers that have possessed nuclear weapons for decades: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. Three countries have refused to sign the treaty, including Israel, which is widely known to have its own nuclear stockpile.

In Britain, officials and academics cautioned against mistaking the drumbeat for actual preparations for a strike in the near or medium term. The common view is that the United States, Britain and Israel have all been engaging in a concerted effort to step up the pressure on Iran.

Dana Allin, a scholar and author who is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said it seemed clear that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak “really are convinced that now might be a good time” for a strike, in view of the convulsions of the Arab Spring and the fact that American troops will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, removing them as hostages to a possible spike in attacks by Iranian-supported militias. But as for an increased tempo in planning for an actual attack, he said, “That strikes me as implausible.”

The speculation about possible military action began last Friday with a column by one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, Nahum Barnea, that dominated the front page of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. Mr. Barnea posed the question of whether Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak had privately decided on a military strike, a question that Mr. Barnea said was preoccupying many in the Israeli government and the security establishment, as well as many in foreign governments.

The Israeli prime minister’s office refused to comment on a report in the newspaper Kuwaiti Al-Jarida on Thursday that said Mr. Netanyahu had ordered his security services to investigate Mr. Dagan and the former chief of the internal Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, in connection with the leaks.

But while Israeli ministers berated the news media for what was described as irresponsible behavior, the government on Wednesday tested what experts said was a long-range ballistic missile. The same day, the Israeli military announced that its air force had just completed a weeklong joint exercise with Italy’s air force in Sardinia, practicing for operational capabilities in conditions that do not exist in Israel.

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Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and David E. Sanger from Washington. John F. Burns contributed reporting from London, and Helene Cooper from Cannes, France.