Too late to stop Tehran, Obama aims to stifle an Israeli attack
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
September 26, 2009
Sound and fury signifying what?
Maestro Barack Obama's histrionics in New York and Pittsburgh Thursday and Friday, Sept. 24-25 - and his threat of "confrontation" for Iran's concealment of its nuclear capabilities - were water off a duck's back for Tehran, whose nuclear weapons program has gone too far to stop by words or even sanctions.
The Islamic regime only responded with more defiance, announcing that its second uranium enrichment plant near Qom would become operational soon.
The US president's tough words and willingness to step out of his axiomatic insistence on dialogue and turn to economic warfare against Iran may be impressive but it is no longer effective. Tehran is too close to its goal of a nuclear weapons capability to be deterred by offers of engagement or economic penalties.
Obama certainly knows this. He also understands that Iran is now unstoppable except by force. His performance was therefore directed at another target: Israel, whom he is determined to dissuade from resorting to military action against Iran's nuclear installations.
Defense secretary Robert Gates hit the nail on the head when he said Friday: "The reality is there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so."
Iran was allowed to reach the point defined by Gates thanks to the permissiveness of two US presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and two Israeli prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. They had no illusions about the deterrent value of the three sets of UN Security sanctions imposed to punish Iran, but held back from pre-emptive action on the pretext that there was still plenty of time before Iran was in a position to destroy Israel.
In any case, Israeli leaders argued, Iran's nuclear ambitions were a threat to the whole world and it was therefore incumbent on the "international community" to take care of them.
This of course did not happen. Iran carried on exploiting international inaction, finally capitalizing on Obama's foot-dragging in his first nine months in office.
By now, Iran has used the gift of time to process enough enriched uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs and is able to produce another two per year.
Its advanced medium-range missiles will be ready to deliver nuclear warheads by next year.
Detonators for nuclear bombs are in production at two secret sites.
And finally, a second secret uranium enrichment plant - subject of the stern warning issued collectively in Pittsburgh Friday by Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British premier Gordon Brown - has come to light, buried under a mountain near Qom. Its discovery doubles - at least - all previous estimates of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Caught red-handed yet again in massive deceit, the Iranian president Mahdmoud Ahmadinejad had only more defiance to offer. America owes his government an apology, he told interviewers in New York Friday, because the new plant would not be operational for 18 months, and Tehran had therefore not violated International Atomic Energy Agency rules requiring notification.
He was soon caught in another lie.
Saturday, the Iranian news agency was informed by an aide of supreme leader Ali Khamenei that "the new plant would become operational soon."
Iran's published concealments and deceptions are disquieting enough. But a whole lot more are undoubtedly buried in fat intelligence dossiers on Iran's nuclear program - plutonium production, for instance. The progress made in its plutonium-based weapons program was never mentioned in the stern condemnations of the last few days, except indirectly in a quiet comment from an anonymous Israeli official Friday night.
He said Iran operates on two hourglasses and both were running out fast. He was referring obliquely to the enriched uranium and the plutonium tracks.
Sarkozy was clearly thinking about those undiscovered Iranian secrets and evasions when he declared in Pittsburgh:
"Everything - everything must be put on the table now" (at the October 1 meeting of the Six Powers with Iranian negotiators). Obama too urged Iran "to come clean."
All the powers concerned - the US, Russia, France, Germany the UK and even China - have the same information as Israel and are fully aware that Iran has already crossed a number of red lines this year and will cross more in 2010. The more time allowed for diplomacy and engagement, the greater Tehran's defiance. Meanwhile, world powers will argue - not over futile sanctions, but on how to stop Israel, so wasting several more months.
DEBKAfile's sources note that the Gates assessment and the cooling note he injected into the US president's oratory came after Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak visited the Pentagon. The visit clearly did not change Gates' view that the Iranian nuclear program was now too advanced to stop, while the use of force would only gain an interval of up to three years, after which Tehran would pick itself up and start again. Therefore, according to Gates, diplomacy remained the only viable option.
The answer to this argument is simple: It is exactly this approach which gave Iran 11 quiet years to develop its weapons capacity. For Israel and Middle East, a three-year setback is a very long time, a security boon worth great risk, because a) It would be a happy respite from the dark clouds hanging over the country from Iran and also cut back Hamas and Hizballah terrorist capabilities, and b) In the volatile Middle East anything can happen in 36 months.
But the US defense secretary believes Israel, like the rest of the world, must accept life under the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran and make the best of it.
This view is shared by the Kremlin. It was advanced by prime minister Vladimir Putin to Binyamin Netanyahu during his secret trip to Moscow on Sept. 7.
According to DEBKAfile's Russian sources, when the Israeli prime minister tried to counter Putin's thesis and explain what restraint meant for Israel, the Russian prime minster became impatient and told his guest to leave.
After that interview, the Israeli government can no longer avoid appreciating that Gates and Putin talk the real talk for Washington and Moscow, while their leaders' moralistic condemnations of Iran are mainly hot air for public consumption and for maneuvering Israel into a position where a military strike would be hard to conceive.
Netanyahu's Sphinx-like silence on the nuclear to-do in the US this week was apt. But it is hard to tell what he is hiding. Will he succumb to the world powers' pressure to sit tight while Iran goes all the way to a military nuclear capability - or face up to it and act?
This is the most important decision of Netanyahu's political life as two-time prime minister of Israel. It will also determine Israel's future.
Muslims attack Yom Kippur worshippers on Temple Mount
Hundreds of Arab Muslims on Sunday violently attacked a small group of Jews who ascended Jerusalem's Temple Mount to mark Yom Kippur, the biblical Day of Atonement, atop Judaism's holiest site.
The Jewish group was accompanied by a large police escort, which fired stun grenades at the riotous Muslims while helping the Jews flee to safety. Police subsequently bowed to Muslim demands and banned all non-Muslim visitors from the site for the remainder of the day.
But the concession by Israeli authorities did little to appease the Muslims, and violence quickly spread to the streets of the Old City, where Arab youth hurled stones and firebombs at Israeli police. At least 22 Israeli police officers and 15 Muslim rioters were wounded in the Temple Mount and Old City confrontations.
Later in the evening, Arab youth in the Jerusalem suburb of Isawiya hurled at least 20 firebombs at Israeli Border Police officers stationed nearby, wounding five.
The racial tension continued on Monday, when a small group of Jews threw stones at Arab vehicles violating traditional Yom Kippur cultural norms by driving on a major thoroughfare that passes several Jewish neighborhoods en route to Bethlehem. Five suspects were arrested in that incident.
On Monday evening, Arab residents in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, the biblical City of David, threw two firebombs at the homes of Jewish neighbors, causing damage but no injuries. Police maintained a high security alter in the city on Tuesday, and arrested many of the Arabs involved in the violence.
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, blamed the flare-ups on the Jews for provoking Arab Muslims by praying atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount on a Jewish holy day.
"At a time when President Obama is trying to bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, and to get negotiations back on track, Israel is deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who vaguely threatened a new terrorist uprising if Israel did not halt such "provocations."
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights referred to the entry of Jews onto the Temple Mount as "settlement activity," and likewise blamed the resulting violence solely on the Jews and Israel.
Dr. Aaron Lerner of IMRA noted that the Palestinian reactions to the day of violence should highlight how impossible it is to reach an acceptable compromise regarding control of Jerusalem and its holy sites, an issue international peace brokers continuously push off as a "final status" issue.
Gaza rockets mar Yom Kippur for southerners
Palestinian terrorists operating out of the Gaza Strip fired a number of rockets and mortar shells at communities in southern Israel on Monday, as Israelis were trying to mark Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Several of the rockets scored direct hits on small communities in the Negev region, while most fell in open areas between towns. There were no reports of injuries in any of the attacks.
Local community leaders told Israeli media that they increasingly fear a return to the days before the recent Gaza war, when Gaza-based terrorist groups fired tens of rockets into southern Israel on a daily basis.
Most said a repeat of the Gaza invasion dubbed "Cast Lead" would not be sufficient, and that Israel needs to come up with a long-term solution to the terrorist aggression from Gaza.
A London court rejects Palestinian bid to arrest Israeli defense minister
DEBKAfile Special Report
September 29, 2009, 6:31 PM (GMT+02:00)
Ehud Barak ignored Palestinian bid for his arrest
Before the court ruling, defense minister Ehud Barak refused advice from the foreign ministry in Jerusalem to leave the UK after a Palestinian group sought an international warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes in Gaza. He insisted on keeping to his schedule of conferences with British prime minister Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 29-30.
DEBKAfile adds: The Westminster Magistrate court's ruling is a landmark, placing in question the sustained campaign by pro-Palestinian groups to seek UK court warrants for the arrest of Israel leaders and military officers whenever they set foot on British soil.
The news reached Barak in at the British Labor Party conference in Brighton where he represented Israel's Labor party of which he is chairman. The defense minister refused to consider leaving or heeding the Palestinian step in the light of Israel-UK ties as friends, allies and strategic partners. Last week, he hosted the British armed forces chief in Tel Aviv on an unannounced visit.
The Palestinians based their petition for his arrest on alleged war crimes and breaches of the Geneva Convention during the Israeli operation launched nine months ago to stop eight years of Palestinian missile and mortar attacks on its population. They claimed the operation was launched on his watch as defense minister. They also drew on the UN report in which former Judge Richard Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes in that operation. Israel rejected the report as pre-judgmental and biased.
Moscow again cool on sanctions, foists restraint on US-led line for Iran
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
September 29, 2009, 11:17 AM (GMT+02:00)
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warns West
Two days before the Six-Power bloc-Iranian meeting in Geneva, DEBKAfile's Russian sources report Moscow appears to have taken a step back from the small opening allowed by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev for a fresh round of sanctions against Tehran. Monday night, Sept. 28, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian news agencies that although Iranian's missile exercise was worrying, restraint was needed. An official communiqué urged "Western powers to restrain themselves."
This is a setback to the tactic US president Barack Obama employed for bringing Russia aboard for stringent international sanctions when he announced Sept. 19 that he was scrapping the US missile shield planned in East Europe.
It is also one in the eye for the Netanyahu government and its latest policy of cooperation with international steps for bringing Iran to heel on its nuclear activities. Monday night, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a television interview: "Israel must not attack Iran's nuclear installations. It must be left to world powers. DEBKAfile's political sources report that Lieberman is increasingly criticized for aligning his policies with those of Moscow.
The Obama administration is working on broadened sanctions in the event that Iran fails to "come clean" on its nuclear activities and deliver on international requirements by the end of the year.
However, two days before Iran's negotiator meets the world powers in Geneva, Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi made it clear in an interview Tuesday that Iran would never give up its uranium enrichment program. He described the second enrichment plant in a mountain near Qom as very small and explained it had been built underground to protect personnel and instruments in a possible attack. "But this does not mean we believe the worst case will ever come," he said, "because any wrong steps would… start a fire they cannot extinguish."
The sanctions under review in Washington might focus on maritime traffic to and from Iran - including pressure on shipping firms in Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, to stop doing direct or third-party business with Tehran, and raising insurance premiums. Foreign investments in Iran, its financial and telecommunications sectors and foreign travel might also be targeted for bans.
Earlier plans to ban refined petrol products and gasoline exports to Iran, which could indeed cripple parts of Iran's economic and military capabilities, appear to have been dropped from the Obama administration's review of possible sanctions. The DEBKAfile's Gulf sources report that some of these options were tried unsuccessfully in the past with little impact on Iran's economy - and certainly not on the regime's determined adherence to its nuclear plans, most of all the rapid momentum of uranium enrichment. As in the past, the new steps under review would have to run the gauntlet of international consensus to fully succeed. Some would no doubt fall by the wayside while the bargaining would meanwhile consume time.
Moscow has moved back in position to delay the process.
US giant bunker-buster bomb project rushed since Iran's Qom site discovered
DEBKAfile Special Report
September 28, 2009, 6:26 PM (GMT+02:00)
Estimated location of Qom enrichment plant
The Pentagon has brought forward to December 2009 the target-date for producing the first 15-ton super bunker-buster bomb (GBU-57A/B) Massive Ordinance Penetrator, which can reach a depth of 60.09 meters underground before exploding. DEBKAfile's military sources report that top defense agencies and air force units were also working against the clock to adapt the bay of a B2a Stealth bomber for carrying and delivering the bomb.
The Pentagon has ordered the number of bombs rolling off the production line increased from four to ten - a rush job triggered in May by the discovery that Iran was hiding a second uranium enrichment plant under a mountain near Qom - a discovery which prompted this week's international outcry.
Congress has since quietly inserted the necessary funding in the 2009 budget.
All this urgency indicates that the Obama administration has been preparing military muscle to back up the international condemnation of Iran's concealed nuclear bomb program, its sanctions threat and his willingness to join the negotiations with Iran opening on Oct. 1 in Geneva. Tehran may have to take into account a possible one-time surgical strike against its underground enrichment facility as a warning shot should its defiance continue. In particular, the world powers this week demanded that Iran open up all its nuclear facilities and programs to full and immediate international inspection. Failure to do so could bring forth further US military action.
According to our military sources, the earliest date for the accelerated Pentagon program to produce a super bunker buster bomb mounted on a stealth bomber is December 2009 or January 2010. This too is three years ahead of its original schedule.
Pressed into service are two US Air Force research centers for work on adapting the radar-evading stealth bomber to the giant bomb: the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the Munitions Directorate and Air Armament Center, both headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Last month, DEBKAfile quoted Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford as disclosing that the Pentagon had decided to accelerate the production of 10-12 giant bunker buster bombs in response to intelligence received of Iranian and North Korean underground nuclear plants.