Are Israel and the U.S. fighting again? The news from the last several days gives that general impression. Is the cancellation of a major joint U.S.-Israeli military drill part of the frictions? Media reports are open to interpretation.
Last Wednesday Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, director of uranium enrichment at the Natanz facility, was assassinated in Tehran. Iran quickly blamed Israel and the U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, hastened to “categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added that the “United States strongly condemns this act of violence and categorically denies any involvement in the killing.” Clinton, for her part, also said the U.S. was seeking an understanding with Iran on stopping its uranium enrichment.
For Israel it was a disconcerting message. If getting rid of someone helping a fanatic regime obtain weapons capable of annihilating millions of people is a “violent act” to be condemned, is the Obama administration really serious about the threat? Or still dreaming of dialogue and “understanding” with that regime?
It is, indeed, particularly late in the game to talk of “understanding.” A day or two before Roshan’s killing, it was widely reported that Iran had “graduated” from aboveground uranium enrichment at Natanz to deep-underground enrichment at its Fordo facility, which would be much harder to attack from the air. Iran is doing so in the face of all sanctions and habitual U.S. threats that “all options are on the table.”
On Thursday, the day after Roshan was dispatched, President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Although not much has been disclosed about their chat, one can assume Obama wasn’t calling to say “I’m glad we see eye to eye on so many things—and, nice work in the security realm.”
On Sunday Israeli deputy prime minister Moshe Yaalon complained publicly about U.S. policy. He compared it to Britain and France, who “are taking a very firm stand [on Iran] and understand sanctions must be imposed immediately”—whereas
In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution, by a majority of 100-to-one, to impose…sanctions, and in the U.S. administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising this year, out of election-year considerations. In that regard, this is certainly a disappointment, for now.
Not many hours after that, it was reported that the U.S.-Israeli military drill—which was to be the largest joint exercise ever between the two countries—had been postponed at least to sometime later this year. Originally planned for April, “Austere Challenge 12” was aimed at improving antimissile defense systems, as well as cooperation between U.S. and Israeli forces.
Whatever the impact of this development on the Israeli leadership, on Monday it was Netanyahu himself who continued in his deputy Yaalon’s vein, telling a Knesset committee that
The sanctions employed thus far are ineffective, they have no impact on [Iran’s] nuclear program. We need tough sanctions against [its] central bank and oil industry. These things are not happening yet and that is why it has no effect on the nuclear program.
He also said Iran had been quickly penetrating Iraq since the U.S. withdrew its forces, and that Israel, as a result, had to strengthen its defenses against possible attacks from the air and the ground.
In an atmosphere, then, of implicit and open accusations and counteraccusations, it is tempting to see the cancellation of “Austere Challenge 12” as a U.S. slap at Israel. While an alternative Israeli site claims that’s the case, mainstream Israeli outlets don’t go that far.
One of them, the Jerusalem Post, even hinted that it was a joint decision,reporting that “In recent weeks, [Israeli] Defense Minister Ehud Barak led talks with the Pentagon about the possibility of canceling the drill and holding it at a later date.” More typically, Israel Hayom reported that “the drill was postponed to avoid any moves that could heat up the region amid already high tensions between the U.S. and Iran.” (Officials are also quoted saying both countries’ budgetary constraints were behind the decision, while other officials are quoted denying this.)
In any case, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is on the way to Israel this week to hold talks with the Israeli chief of staff and other top brass. It comes as no surprise, the Wall Street Journal having reported on Saturday that the U.S. is increasingly worried about an Israeli strike on Iran.
If, then, the drill was called off because of fears of heating up the region, it seems more likely that the fears were on the U.S. side. For Israel the region is already heating up—possibly unbearably so. Israeli analysts Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel say that whereas, for Israel, Iran’s underground enrichment at Fordo is the crossing of a red line, “the American red line…is more distant—at the point were Iran has progressed in the development of a nuclear warhead….”
Israel doesn’t want to wait that long. It would much prefer that the international community join forces to stop Iran’s march to nukes. Its leaders are not convinced that’s happening.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com.