Michael Oren says Iran’s nuclear program is progressing in the growth of enriched uranium & in efforts to protect its operations in underground facilities beyond the reach of “bunker buster” bombs.
Israel would be willing to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if doing so only delayed its ability to produce nuclear weapons for a few years, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said.
“One, two, three, four years are a long time in the Middle East — look what’s happened in the last year” in terms of political change, Oren said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “In our neighborhood, those are the rules of the game.”
Israeli leaders have stressed this month that time is running out for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear program that Israel regards as an existential threat.
“Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded,” Oren, 57, said today. “We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions do have to be made.”
While Israeli leaders repeatedly have said they may strike Iran’s facilities, the words are now being accompanied by civil- defense measures, including a new system that uses text messages to alert the public to missile attacks, wider distribution of gas masks and the appointment of a new Home Front Defense minister.
Iran may present the most dangerous in an array of threats Israel faces, Oren said, describing them as unprecedented in the country’s 64 years. The Arab Spring has roiled neighbors Egypt and Syria, the Sinai Peninsula is becoming a magnet for militant groups and terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens and property are rising around the world, Oren said.
Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are a grave concern to Israel amid the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Oren said. “The situation in Syria is highly fluid, highly flammable,” he said, so much so that Israel may have to deal with its northern neighbor before any confrontation with Iran. “If you had to assign a clock to” Syria, Oren said, ’’that clock is ticking.’’
The U.S. and European allies share Israel’s assessment that Iran is moving closer to being able to make nuclear weapons, while Iran says its program is for civilian power and medical use.
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday that an Israeli strike on Iran “could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” based on his review of Israel’s military arsenal.
Such assessments aren’t relevant, Oren said. “That, on the basis of our previous experience, is not an argument against” a strike, Oren said. “In the past, we have operated on the assumption that we can only gain a delay.”
When Israel struck at an Iraq reactor in 1981, the military assumption was “we would gain a delay of between one and two years on that program,” Oren said. “To this day, Iraq does not have a nuclear weapon.”
While “no country has a greater stake in resolving this diplomatically” than Israel, Oren said, “Iranians show no signs of flexibility in negotiations” with the U.S. and other countries over its program.
Instead, Iran’s nuclear program is “progressing apace,” Oren said, both in the growth of stockpiles of enriched uranium and in efforts to protect operations in underground facilities that take the program beyond the reach of “bunker buster” bombs. The Iranian enrichment operations are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent diversion to bomb use.
“An Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat to Israel,” Oren said. “We don’t just say it. They say it as well. They confirm it.”
The threat has been personal, the ambassador said today. A thwarted 2011 Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington also included plans to kill Oren and others by bombing the Israeli embassy, he said.
Israeli intelligence suggests that, for now, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni doesn’t think the threat of military action is credible, Oren said. Given that, he said Israel wants to see “truly crippling sanctions” and a “credible military threat” against Iran.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Aug. 10 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a strike before the U.S. presidential election. Oren said the Nov. 6 election isn’t a consideration in Israeli decision-making.
“The issue is not the American elections,” he said in an interview today with Bloomberg Television. “The issue is the degree to which the Iranian program has reached a critical point where they can begin to put together nuclear weapons.”
At the Bloomberg Government session, Oren said that “fundamentally” Israel’s relationship with the United States hasn’t changed under the Obama administration.
“Every administration brings a certain emphasis, but there is also the continuing traditions and themes — and that is a very close strategic alliance,” he said. Additionally, Oren said his nation is “rapidly becoming a vital American commercial interest, something that was unthinkable 40, 50 years ago.”
“We outsource thousands of jobs to the United States,” Oren said.
Concern that Israel’s moves may herald a possible strike on Iran helped weaken the shekel to its lowest value in almost 15 months this week and pushed the Tel Aviv Stock Market (TA-25) to a three-week low on Aug. 13. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity Index of the most-traded Israeli companies in New York sank the most in three months, making the benchmark gauge the cheapest in two years relative to the Standard & Poor’s 500.
The cost of insuring Israel’s debt rose today, with five- year credit-default swaps increasing to 155, the highest level in more than two weeks, according to data provider CMA, which is owned by McGraw-Hill Cos. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.
Israel would like to see the ouster of Syria’s Assad, Oren said, as it would deal another blow to Iran, Assad’s primary ally. While Assad’s father, the former president Hafez al-Assad, was ruthless, his son is “ruthless and reckless,” said Oren, an historian.
Assad has supplied the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, both recognized by the U.S. and Israel as terrorist organizations, with thousands of rockets, Oren said.
Oren, who grew up in New Jersey active in Zionist youth movements, is a graduate of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, and Columbia University in New York City. He moved to Israel in the 1970s, and served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, according to the Israeli embassy.
He taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University. His two most recent books, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present,” were New York Times bestsellers.
Oren gave up his American citizenship when he became ambassador in 2009.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 7, Oren said a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to “commit incalculable atrocities” and that the window for diplomacy to avert that “is now almost closed.”
That wouldn’t be the first time Israel has acted militarily in what it describes as self-defense. In addition to its 1981 destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Israel in 2007 attacked a reactor under construction in Syria.
A unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “infinitely more complicated and far less assured of significant success” than the prior attacks, Kenneth Katzman, Middle East military and terrorism analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in Washington wrote in an e-mail.
The Obama administration has pressed Israeli leaders to allow more time for international sanctions to pressure Iran to give up key elements of its nuclear program.
“From our point of view, the window is still open to try to work toward a diplomatic solution,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters yesterday at the Pentagon.
One question is whether Israel would inform the Obama administration — knowing it may disagree — in advance of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In the case of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the U.S. didn’t know in advance, according Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It came during the Ronald Reagan administration when the U.S. was tilting toward Iraq because of its war with Iran.
“Eager to dispel any semblance of collusion in an attack against America’s new de facto ally, Reagan delayed the delivery of additional jet fighters to Israel,” Oren wrote in “Power, Faith and Fantasy.”
In contrast, Israel and the U.S. consulted closely about what do to with the Syria site and Israel made clear in advance it was going to strike, according to Clawson.
Former President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir “Decision Points” that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Bush “to bomb the compound” in a remote area of Syria. The U.S. refused, after officials cited “low confidence” that Syria was developing nuclear weapons, according to Bush. Bush wrote that Olmert was disappointed.
“The bombing demonstrated Israel’s willingness to act alone,” Bush wrote. “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”
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