Obama defines his Syria red line

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President Barack Obama said Monday that his “red line” for direct military intervention in the widening Syria conflict would be the use of chemical or biological weapons.

“The red line for us is if we start seeing a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama, speaking in a surprise appearance at the White House press conference Monday, said. “That would change my calculus.”

Obama said the United States is increasing humanitarian aid to help Syria’s exploding refugee population, as well as political and financial support to the Syrian opposition, in consultation with other countries. But he had not “at this point” ordered U.S. military engagement in the conflict.

“We are monitoring the situation very carefully, and have put together a range of contiengency plans and communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in  the region that is a red line for us,” Obama said.

He spoke as a US delegation is headed to Turkey for consultations on the widening crisis, amid growing US concerns about spill over from the Syrian conflict potentially destabilizing other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq..

As Al Monitor  previously reported, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones is headed to Turkey this week to confer on Syria.

Jones will be part of an inter-agency team that includes senior officials from the Pentagon and intelligence community who will meet Wednesday with their Turkish counterparts, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday. Continue reading

Feldman: Case closed-for now-on Israel Iran strike?


Israel scholar Shai Feldman pronounces the Israeli debate on attacking Iran over. The two chief proponents of Israeli action, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “did not bluff, but they were defeated”–at least for now, Feldman, a scholar at Brandeis and Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes at Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel:

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.[…]

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak … did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel’s current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.

But two veteran Israeli analysts said they were not convinced the debate is over at all.

“While Shimon Peres’ statement was of extraordinary importance, the logic underlining Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak’s rationale remains intact,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas told Al Monitor Monday by email.

“They are convinced that the ‘timetable gap’ that exists between the US and Israel will not change,” Pinkas continued. “The one game-changer that is still available are US assurances pertaining to a US military strike sometime around spring 2013, if all else fails.”

“No. I don’t think it’s over,” Israeli national security correspondent Yossi Melman told Al Monitor by email. Melman, co-author of a new book on Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armaggedon, noted that Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror on Monday briefed Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, on Iran. The briefing was seen as an effort to try to sway Shas’ two cabinet ministers in favor of possible Israeli action on Iran.

“So it’s far from over,” Melman said. “I still think Israel will [probably] not attack before [the US] elections, but …. Netanyahu and Barak seem to be still very determined.”

(Photo: Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool)

State’s Beth Jones to Turkey to consult on Syria

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Turkey next week for consultations on Syria.

The United States is becoming increasingly concerned about potential spillover from the Syrian conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, etc.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a stop to Turkey last minute to her trip this past month to Africa to consult on the Syria crisis. Jones traveled to Turkey to meet here there.

A State Department official told Al Monitor Friday that the US government is currently “seized” with the Syria conflict, even more so than on Iran, and speculation over the potential for Israeli action against Iran this fall.

P5+1 negotiators to consult on Iran

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton is expected to have a phone conversation with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili next week, following the end of Ramadan.

“For the time being, they have agreed to speak on the phone, with [Ashton] consulting closely with her E3+3 colleagues,” a European Union spokesman told Al-Monitor.

Ashton will brief P5+1 negotiators on her conversation. P5+1 political directors may also meet next week in Europe, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has held discussions with her counterparts in China and Russia this past week, on Iran and Syria.  She has since traveled to London, where diplomatic sources said she is holding meetings with her EU3 counterparts.

“Under Secretary Sherman had very serious discussions with both Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov and Deputy Foreign Minister [Sergei] Ryabkov, in particular on issues regarding Syria and Iran,” a State Department readout of her meeting Thursday said.

“On Iran, she said we remain committed to the two-track approach, and believe diplomacy still has a chance to succeed,” it continued.

Israel not ‘merely bluffing’ on Iran strike threat, ex-Obama official says


A former senior Pentagon official says Israel is probably not bluffing in its latest saber rattling on Iran.

“I think it is more likely Israeli leaders are preparing the Israeli public for a strike, and creating a narrative for the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have failed and thus Israel has no choice,” Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, told Al Monitor Tuesday in an interview on the front page.

“There is clearly a crescendo emerging, and there is a lot of detailed, point-by-point argumentation …laying the foundation for a potential strike,” Kahl said. .”

The Pentagon said Tuesday Israel has not made a decision yet on possible Iran action.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told journalists at the Pentagon Tuesday, Reuters reported. “With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate.”

But Israeli leaders are preparing the Israel public for a possible attack on Iran in September-October.

Tel Aviv designated 60 parking garages as bomb shelters Wednesday, amid defensive preparations for possible counterattacks, the Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday.

Israel appointed a new homeland defense chief Tuesday. Ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter was unanimously approved by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet in a Tuesday night vote. Dichter was formerly a professional soldier in the elite Israeli commando unit,the Sayeret Matkal, with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Dichter now holds the key ninth vote in previously reportedly evenly divided ‘Octet’ that will vote if it comes to it on the action.

“Despite Obama’s existing promises to use all means, including military action, to prevent an Iranian bomb, I think Netanyahu and Barak have convinced themselves that they cannot sub-contract out their security on this issue to any US president,” Kahl said.

“At the end of the day, the Israeli leadership is building the case that they can trust no one but themselves on this issue,” he added. Continue reading

White House on Israeli leaks: ‘We share a great deal of information’ about Iran

White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to press questions Monday about Israeli leaks of alleged U.S. intelligence on Iran.

“We have a shared interest with Israel, countries in the region and around the world in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and we cooperate accordingly,” Carney told journalists aboard Air Force One en route to Nebraska Monday when asked about Israeli leaks of U.S. Iran intelligence.

Asked again if leaks are complicating the matter, Carney didn’t exactly deny that any such leaks had occurred.

“We, as you know, have a robust, cooperative relationship with Israel on security matters; we share a great deal of information, and especially about Iran,” he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised eyebrows in the United States last week when he said that a new U.S. intelligence report “making the rounds” in Washington “transforms the Iranian situation into an even more urgent one.”

“Apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices …comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak told Israel Radio August 9, CBS News reported. (However, the last US NIE on Iran is from late 2010, experts told Al-Monitor, who said it would not be unusual if there was a new, more focused report on a narrow aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.)

Carney reiterated Monday that the US administration and its allies believe “there remains time and space to pursue a diplomatic course” with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that “they had not yet made a decision about taking action, kinetic action,” Carney noted. Continue reading

Israeli media mull leaders’ intentions on Iran


Israeli media reports give a sense of the intensifying debate and confusion in Israel and beyond over signs Israeli leaders are contemplating striking Iran in the fall:

Israeli columnist Ben Caspit, writing in Al Monitor partner Maariv and translated on our front page, expresses Israelis’ weariness and confusion over whether Israeli leaders’ rhetoric is a bluff or real, concluding:

Does all of this mean that they are really bluffing? I don’t know. They have the right to bluff, and they have the right not to bluff. They should sit, discuss, go over information, and decide already. They are leaders, and the power is in their hands. For the moment, their “determination” amounts to bluster. From the outside, it seems like they are not being taken seriously inside Israel, nor the rest of the world for getting too worked up. Who knows, maybe in the end they’ll bomb Iran just to prove they were serious.

Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit, writing August 11, interviews “the decision maker,” an anonymous senior Israeli official universally believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

… “The United States and Israel currently agree on the diagnosis,” says my interlocutor. “The intelligence assessments are the same and the rhetoric is practically the same. We and the Americans both know that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and that it is deceiving the whole world in order to do this. We and the Americans both say that we will not accept a nuclear Iran and that all options are on the table. But the gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the U.S. and Israel have different abilities.

“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything,” he warns. “For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”

You’re describing a tragedy, I say to the decision maker. Iran’s immunity zone versus Israel begins a little sooner than its immunity zone versus the United States. […] Because of this gap of six to nine months, Israel could find itself going into a terrible war all on its own.

“I don’t see it as a tragedy, but it’s true that there is a built-in gap here. The Americans understand what we’re saying but they want more time. Some people here think this is a plot, but I don’t think so. In terms of sanctions and diplomacy, this administration has done more than any other administration. It has also prepared a military option at various levels. But where you sit is where you stand. And from the point of view of the American president, the moment has not yet come. The United States will be able to act next year, too. So the Americans are telling us that it would be a serious mistake to act now. After all, they could deal the Iranians a knockout blow, while they think all we can do is give them a black eye. So it would seem that it would be worth it for us, too, for them to be the ones to act and not us. But as a sovereign state, we’re saying that on issues vital to our security, we cannot place our fate in the hands of others. …

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s senior commentators Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer wrote August 10th:

If it were up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be launched in the coming autumn months, before the US election in November. Of course, the fact that Israel’s two most senior figures are determined to adopt the decision and pass it in the cabinet is of immense significance. It is no less significant that not one high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment — not in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) top echelons, nor in the defense establishment and not even the President of Israel — currently supports an Israeli attack.

Veteran Israeli national security journalist Yossi Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of the new book on the Mossad, Spies against Armaggedon, writes in Walla, in a translation provided by the author, that the next 80 days are critical because Israel may have a limited weather window to act:

The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November.  After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack.  The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary.  Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.”  They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview.  They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.

But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.”  He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological.  That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.

Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble.  That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.  Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. …

Update: “Although Israel’s leaders frequently lament all the Iran ‘chitchat,’ make no mistake: It’s they who are fueling the discussion,” the Associated Press notes in a report on “Israel plunged into unprecedented debate on Iran war.”

(Photo: Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a session of the Knesset December 23, 2009. Reuters.)

US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is from 2010, experts say

The last U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program was from late 2010, several Iran experts said Friday.

The question over whether there is a new NIE on Iran arose this week after Israel’s Defense Minister told Israel Radio Thursday that a new U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program. A U.S. intelligence report “making the rounds” in Washington “comes comes very close to our own estimate…It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program,” Ehud Barak told Israel Radio Thursday, CBS News reported. His comments echoed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz the same day that said the more alarming American assessment was contained in a new U.S. NIE on Iran.

But current and former American officials said that the Israeli claims are unduly alarmist.

“We have eyes, we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made what’s called a breakout move towards acquiring a weapon,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists Friday, AFP reported. Continue reading

Israeli Defense Minister publicly divulges US intelligence report


Israel’s Defense Minister raised some eyebrows in the United States when he told Israel Radio Thursday that a new, previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that there is “apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices,” in Washington, CBS News reported.

“As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak continued. “It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Generally, foreign leaders don’t publicly disclose allied nations’ classified intelligence reports in such a provocative manner, intelligence experts said.

“The rules of the spy game are clear,” former US Navy intelligence analyst John Schindler wrote on his blog. “When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”

A cavalcade of top American officials have traveled to Israel in recent weeks to confer on Iran, and President Obama this month signed a $70 million US military aid package for Israel. Israeli officials have expressed growing impatience with US reluctance to endorse military action on Iran at this time.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s comments followed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz Thursday which said that there was a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But several American former intelligence and security officials told Al-Monitor that the product is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report or series of reports on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps related to suspected weapons-relevant research activity. Continue reading