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No Red Lines, But No Red Light Either

Analysis by Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Mar 8 2012 (IPS) - Intense consultations at the highest level between the U.S. and Israel on how to coordinate their respective strategies vis-à-vis Iran indicate that a strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, if launched by Israel, the U.S., or in tandem, wouldn’t occur this spring, probably not even before November.

“This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks, or month or two months, is not borne out by the facts,” U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday, one day after hosting Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By “choice”, read a U.S. war as last resort – if Iran chooses not to abandon its uranium enrichment programme.

By “facts”, rely on the severest Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran has already enough 20 percent enriched uranium in its possession to produce higher-grade nuclear fuel for more than a bomb. Were Iran to decide to actually build such a bomb, it would probably take about one year, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently assessed.

Still, what if Israel chose to pre-empt its enemy’s controversial nuclear quest militarily before all other options are exhausted, thus pre-empting its ally’s preferred strategy?

Obama’s insistence to give precedence to economic sanctions and diplomacy clearly came within the context of Iran’s acquiescence to resume the long-stalled talks with the five U.N. Security Council powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.S.) and Germany (P5+1) over its nuclear programme. The date and venue for such talks have yet to be determined.

Netanyahu’s demand that future P5+1 discussions be contingent on a complete cessation by Iran of its enrichment programme, the dismantlement of its underground Fordow enrichment facility, and the transfer to a third country of its already-enriched uranium beyond 3.5 percent was a non-starter – even the Israeli leader knew that.

Iran has also said it will allow access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to its Parchin military complex – though conditions for such inspection have yet to be agreed upon. In its November 2011 report, the U.N. nuclear watchdog alleged simulated nuclear warhead tests took place in Parchin.

U.S. red lines to a potential Israeli military strike on Iran were not discussed during the Oval Office meeting, assured Netanyahu’s National Security Council chief Yaakov Amidror. “Red lines should rather be discussed between the international community and Iran,” he noted while welcoming, albeit sceptically, the prospect of P5+1 negotiations.

Israel’s own red line vis-à-vis Iran is when its nuclear programme attains what defence minister Ehud Barak calls a “zone of immunity”.

The defence minister’s doctrine refers to when Iran enters a phase after which Israeli or U.S. aerial strikes on its nuclear sites would be possible but mostly ineffective to even the most advanced bunker-busting bombs. That’s a matter of months, warns Israel.

If Barak’s argument is valid, the point when Iran produces its first nuclear bomb then becomes irrelevant. When Iran can actually decide it wants to build a bomb is the red line, Israel argues. When Iran has actually built a bomb is the point of no return, the U.S. retorts.

Thus, it is argued, defining an authoritative timeline for Iran crossing a nuclear weapon threshold risks being ill-defined. And, there’s no guarantee that the making of a bomb by Iran would be detected in real time. Atomic tests by the former Soviet Union (1949), Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006) took U.S. intelligence by surprise.

On the other hand, Israel has in the past conducted pre-emptive strikes with neither prior U.S. consent nor notification, destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak (1981) and a Syrian reactor near Deir e-Zor (2007). The U.S. condemned the former. There was neither a red line nor a green light from the U.S. on the latter.

Yet during the first Gulf War (1991), Israel, under heavy U.S. pressure, refrained from retaliation against Iraq’s missile attacks.

That Netanyahu has no faith in the validity of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure was on public display at the Oval Office. Before their one-on-one meeting, the Prime Minister made no mention of the diplomatic option and economic sanctions advocated by the U.S. President. Obama, for his part, didn’t reiterate the eventuality of a military option.

In his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu declared dismissively: “Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.”

But Netanyahu’s impatience is also a non-starter. He made it amply clear even before his White house meeting that he hasn’t yet decided on a strike against Iran. So, Obama could safely reiterate Israel’s right to defend itself.

All that considered, Netanyahu won’t be told what to do with the Iran nuclear programme. After all, that would be equivalent to the U.S. taking responsibility for what Israel does.

So, in effect, Israel is maintaining its own zone of immunity. “Neither a green light (endorsing an Israeli strike on Iran) nor a red light (vetoing such strike),” said Netanyahu spokesman Liran Dan. “We’re in the grey zone now.”

This carefully-calculated ambiguity was corroborated by reports in the Israeli media quoting top U.S. officials that Obama has instructed Panetta to work directly with Barak on the procurement by Israel of advanced bunker-piercing bombs and air re-fuelling tankers.

Defence analysts have long pointed out that for an Israeli assault to be effective its Air Force needs these missing items in its arsenal.

“Israel’s right to defend itself is a matter of consensus. But whether Israel is sovereign in its decision on when and how to use its U.S. weapons and entangle its most important friend – that’s another question,” cautioned the liberal daily Haaretz in an editorial on Wednesday.

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