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Sunday, January 11, 2009

NY Times: Bush refused requests for bunker busters, flyover

In Sunday's editions, the New York Times reports that the Bush administration refused Israeli requests over the last year for bunker busters and rights to fly over Iraq, both of which were to be elements in an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear capability. Instead, the Bush administration offered covert operations to sabotage Iran's nuclear development. And those covert operations may be curtailed or suspended altogether by the incoming Obama administration.
White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.

The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama.


Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran’s nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America’s 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.

Instead, Mr. Bush embraced more intensive covert operations actions aimed at Iran, the interviews show, having concluded that the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies were failing to slow the uranium enrichment efforts. Those covert operations, and the question of whether Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama.

The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. It is aimed at delaying the day that Iran can produce the weapons-grade fuel and designs it needs to produce a workable nuclear weapon.


Late last year, international inspectors estimated that Iran had 3,800 centrifuges spinning, but American intelligence officials now estimate that the figure is 4,000 to 5,000, enough to produce about one weapon’s worth of uranium every eight months or so.

While declining to be specific, one American official dismissed the latest covert operations against Iran as “science experiments.” One senior intelligence official argued that as Mr. Bush prepared to leave office, the Iranians were already so close to achieving a weapons capacity that they were unlikely to be stopped.

Others disagreed, making the point that the Israelis would not have been dissuaded from conducting an attack if they believed that the American effort was unlikely to prove effective.
I want to stop for a second just to refute that last paragraph. The Olmert-Livni-Barak government is so gutless that had Hamas not given it no choice but to respond, the IDF would not be in Gaza now. If Hamas had kept the rocket levels to 10-20 per day, Olmert would happily have continued to grin and bear it.
Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with Iran.

Either course could carry risks for Mr. Obama. An inherited intelligence or military mission that went wrong could backfire, as happened to President Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. But a decision to pull back on operations aimed at Iran could leave Mr. Obama vulnerable to charges that he is allowing Iran to speed ahead toward a nuclear capacity, one that could change the contours of power in the Middle East.
Remember that Israeli 'exercise' over the Mediterranean last June? That one was a bucket of cold water for the Bush administration.
Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a dry run for an attack on the enrichment plant at Natanz. When the exercise was analyzed at the Pentagon, officials concluded that the distances flown almost exactly equaled the distance between Israel and the Iranian nuclear site.

“This really spooked a lot of people,” one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over Iraq without American permission. In that case, would the American military be ordered to shoot them down? If the United States did not interfere to stop an Israeli attack, would the Bush administration be accused of being complicit in it?

Admiral Mullen, traveling to Israel in early July on a previously scheduled trip, questioned Israeli officials about their intentions. His Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, argued that an aerial attack could set Iran’s program back by two or three years, according to officials familiar with the exchange. The American estimates at the time were far more conservative.

The United States did give Israel one item on its shopping list: high-powered radar, called the X-Band, to detect any Iranian missile launchings. It was the only element in the Israeli request that could be used solely for defense, not offense.
The American sabotage efforts have not accomplished much.
But the Iranians were making uranium faster than the sanctions were making progress. As Mr. Bush realized that the sanctions he had pressed for were inadequate and his military options untenable, he turned to the C.I.A. His hope, several people involved in the program said, was to create some leverage against the Iranians, by setting back their nuclear program while sanctions continued and, more recently, oil prices dropped precipitously.

There were two specific objectives: to slow progress at Natanz and other known and suspected nuclear facilities, and keep the pressure on a little-known Iranian professor named Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a scientist described in classified portions of American intelligence reports as deeply involved in an effort to design a nuclear warhead for Iran.


In the end, success or failure may come down to how much pressure can be brought to bear on Mr. Fakrizadeh, whom the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate identifies, in its classified sections, as the manager of Project 110 and Project 111. According to a presentation by the chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency, those were the names for two Iranian efforts that appeared to be dedicated to designing a warhead and making it work with an Iranian missile. Iranian officials say the projects are a fiction, made up by the United States.

While the international agency readily concedes that the evidence about the two projects remains murky, one of the documents it briefly displayed at a meeting of the agency’s member countries in Vienna last year, from Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects, showed the chronology of a missile launching, ending with a warhead exploding about 650 yards above ground — approximately the altitude from which the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated.

The exact status of Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects today is unclear. While the National Intelligence Estimate reported that activity on Projects 110 and 111 had been halted, the fear among intelligence agencies is that if the weapons design projects are turned back on, will they know?
Read the whole thing (yes, there's more).

Both Hot Air and Powerline believe that the Times ran this story now to put President-elect Obama in a position where he must refute the Bush administration policy. They also focus on the bogus National Intelligence Estimate, that took the military option out of Bush's hands, and the claim that Iran has an additional 10-15 nuclear facilities that the UN has never seen. Jihad Watch points out that what was covert is no longer covert as a result of the Times article (Hat Tip: Memeorandum), although the Times specifically states that there were parts of the story it was asked not to run.

I'd like to focus on a different aspect: Given all of the above, what does Israel do with the information? There's been some speculation here in Israel that the current operation was actually undertaken to ensure quiet on our southern border so that Israel can act against Iran. If that's the case, one would expect Iran to have tried much harder to help Hamas. So far, that has not happened. A promised 'aid ship' has not arrived. Iran has barred 70,000 'volunteers' from going to Gaza as suicide bombers. And the Hamas leadership, sitting in their relatively safe hideaways in Damascus, has been happy to let the people of Gaza absorb the full punishing blows for Hamas' behavior. They have topedoed every attempt to stop the fighting. Meanwhile, on Israel's northern front, Hezbullah, watching events in Gaza, is said to be 'leery' of another war with Israel (Hat Tip: Hot Air).

If one of Israel's goals in this operation was to clear the southern flank to open up room for an action against Iran, it seems likely to succeed. I don't believe that's what's behind the current Gaza operation, but I do believe that it was in the back of the minds of the IDF's top commanders when the current operation was conceived. And given that most of the events in the Times article took place in the first six months of 2008, I believe that the IDF has a contingency plan to stop Iran. Whether we will have leadership with the 'anatomy' to implement it remains to be decided - hopefully next month. In any event, don't expect Israel to sit and do nothing and watch Iran go nuclear.

As to the 'covert operations,' it doesn't sound like they matter much, does it?

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At 9:12 AM, Blogger Eliyahu in Shilo said...

"Whether we will have leadership with the 'anatomy' to implement it remains to be decided - hopefully next month. In any event, don't expect Israel to sit and do nothing and watch Iran go nuclear."

You think Bibi will do it? I doubt it, but I would love to be proven wrong.

One thing is for sure, life here in Israel is never boring.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israel is always forced to do the right thing sooner than later. Ironically, the two people who can't call off the war are Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni. Failure would not be good for their political future. So for the moment at least, they're hawks. Its a marvel how the prospect of a looming election can concentrate minds.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


Bibi will do it but only if he has a 'narrow right' coalition. No Kadima or Labor.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Eliyahu in Shilo said...


I hope you are right, but I'm afraid that with National Union and Jewish Home running separately, he will be forced to make a 'center' coalition. I personally plan to vote for National Union only because I want Dr Arye Eldad to be in the Kennest to continue his anti Jihad struggle. http://www.facingjihad.com .
I've given up on the institutions of the State of Israel being the path to our ultimate redemption. Politics are for entertainment only, as far as I'm concerned. Just another way to see Hashem's since of humor.

Hey Carl, remember when I used to say the harachamans for the medina at your shabbat table? My how times have changed. Carl Shabbas table is an awesome place.


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