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U.S., Israel on the same page on Iran timeline

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Adm. Mike Mullen, left, told PBS host Charlie Rose that Israel and the United States agree on more than they disagree when it comes to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. (Department of Defense)

Adm. Mike Mullen, left, told PBS host Charlie Rose that Israel and the United States agree on more than they disagree when it comes to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. (Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A number of recent news reports on Iran policy have emphasized the differences between U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates of when Iran will go nuclear. More striking, however, is that both nations agree that it could happen in less than a year.

They differ only in over how long Iran almost certainly will have a weapon: Israel estimates Iran will inevitably go nuclear within two years, while the Americans say it could take until the middle of next decade.

"I’ve been with my Israeli counterpart a number of times, and by and large we see it the same way," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Charlie Rose of PBS last week. "We’re in agreement and have been for, oh, the better part of the last six months or so. There was a time that we weren’t, but we’ve actually worked pretty hard to understand where we both are. And so I think generally we’re in agreement."

In the same interview, Mullen said the window for an Iranian nuclear capability was "sort of 2010 to 2015." That overlaps with Israeli predictions of a capability by next year, and Mullen added for effect: "2010 isn’t very far away."

Mullen was responding to reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that the two allies were at odds on how to deal with Iran. The analyses were based on separate but parallel events: U.S. Senate testimony by Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, and a presentation by Amos Yadlin, the director of military intelligence, to the Israeli Cabinet.

"We assess now that Iran does not have highly enriched uranium," Blair said March 10.

Pressed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Blair elaborated.

"The nuclear weapons program is one of the three components required for a deliverable system, including the delivery system and the uranium," he said. "But as for the nuclear weapons program, the current position is the same — that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in 2003 and did not — has not started them again, at least as of mid-2007."

Three days later, according to Ynet, the Israeli news Web site attached to Yediot Achronot, Yadlin told Israel’s Cabinet that "Iran has crossed the technological threshold, making its potential military nuclear ability a matter of making it their strategy to create a nuclear bomb. Iran continues to collect hundreds of kilograms of low-grade uranium, and hopes to take advantage of the dialogue with the West and the Washington administration in order to move forward towards the creation of a nuclear bomb."

The analyses, despite the media flurry, were not incompatible. Yadlin specified low-grade uranium and Blair acknowledged that the Iranians were close to having enough for a bomb. Blair specifically was discounting reports that Iran was able to manufacture the highly enriched uranium and offering a holistic view, taking into account Iran’s capacity to deliver weapons. Yadlin was saying simply that the Islamic regime had crossed the threshold of manufacturing enough uranium for a bomb and was not speculating about delivery.

Within days of Mullen’s pronouncement of close Israel-U.S. cooperation, his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, was putting it to the test in Washington meetings with Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, top Pentagon brass and Dennis Ross, who shapes Iran policy at the State Department.

Subtle differences in the Hebrew and English official accounts of Ashkenazi’s meetings were telling.

"Throughout the day, the Chief of Staff met with the National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones, with whom he discussed professional matters such as Iran’s nuclear plans, the security situation along Israel’s northern border, weapons smuggling, as well as the situation in the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip after operation ‘Cast Lead,’ " said the statement put out Monday by Israel for the foreign media.

The Hebrew statement, put out by Israel for domestic consumption, said Iran was the "foremost" issue that Ashkenazi discussed.

The English statement called Ross a "special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia," while the Hebrew version called Ross "an adviser on Iran."

Ashkenazi reportedly outlined for Ross contingencies under which Israel could attack Iran, reiterating it was not on the table for now. Coincidentally, a paper from the Center for Strategic and International Studies published this week said that such an attack was doable, if difficult, both through an air attack and by long-range missiles.

The report, by Abduallh Toukan, said that such an attack would "give rise to regional instability and conflict as well as terrorism."

Such a consequence clearly worried Mullen, too, even though it is not on the immediate horizon.

“What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack — it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region," Mullen said. "It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now."

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