Ron Ben-Yishai, the veteran war correspondent, writes today on Y-Net that he believes that the Obama administration is sabotaging a potential Israeli strike on Iran through leaks.
Is he right? The short answer is, I don’t know, but the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journey I took to get there might be elucidating.
On the one hand: Much of his report is based on the publication this week (PDF) by the Congressional Research Service of a paper assessing the outcomes of such a strike.
Another Administration objective is to convince the Israeli public that an Iran strike (including a US attack) will not achieve even the minimum required to justify it; that is, a delay of at least 3-5 years in Iran’s nuclear program. A lengthy postponement would of course justify the suffering on Israel’s home front, while a six-month delay – as argued by a US Congress report – does not justify the risks.
The six-month figure was meant for the Israeli public, so that it would press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to avoid a strike, whose futility the Americans are trying to prove in every way possible. At the same time, the campaign aims to erode the validity of demands voiced by many members of Congress and Senate – both Democrats and Republicans – who criticize the American president’s inaction
The Congress report published Wednesday is maligned by several inaccuracies, in terms of both analysis and information. However, this makes no difference. The aim was to make headlines in the Israeli and Washington media, rather than an in-depth analysis, which isn’t possible as Congress researchers in Washington do not have access to all the relevant information, fortunately.
Ben-Yishai does not get CRS. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Congress, and even then, is valued only because it operates objectively. Obama administration officials have zero influence on when and how its reports come out.
CRS’ criteria for commissioning an analysis are a) relevance and b) requests from Congress members. The potential for an Israeli strike on Iran is real enough that the report published this week already meets the first criteria.
As for the second, conspiratorially, Ben-Yishai’s thesis — that this report’s release was timed to damage Israel — might be made if we knew who in Congress commissioned the report; Was it a lawmaker acting at the Obama administration’s behest? But that doesn’t really make sense either — the CRS is famous for fact-based reports that contradict lawmakers’ less-fact based imaginings. (Which is why Congress makes the reports hard to obtain, although they are utterly unclassified, and which is why Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy Project, does us a great service by obtaining them and making them public. )
Furthermore, the provenance of the conclusion that infuriates Ben-Yishai — that a hit would only delay Iran’s nuclear project for six months — is not the current Obama administration, but a former official of the executive branch quoted by CRS. To the extent that a current Obama administration official is quoted, it is to validate Israeli claims that damage would be extensive.
An executive branch official said in a February 27, 2012 CRS telephone interview that Iran does not have sufficient spare centrifuges or components that would enable it to install new centrifuges immediately after an attack. However, the former official interviewed on February 27 added that most centrifuge workshops could probably be rebuilt or replicated within six months.
Additionally, what follows is a long paragraph that outlines how Israel could sustain the effects of an initial attack.
On the other hand: What really infuriates Ben-Yishai, he refuses to lay out:
The first and most important American objective is to eliminate potential operational options available to the IDF and the State of Israel. I have no intention of detailing or even hinting to the options which the US government aims to eliminate by exposing them in the media. A large part of the reports stem from false information or disinformation, and there is no reason to reveal to the Iranians what’s real and what isn’t. However, it is blatantly clear that reports in the past week alone have caused Israel substantive diplomatic damage, and possibly even military and operational damage.
What report in the last week alone might "have caused Israel substantive diplomatic damage"? Well there’s this report, by Mark Perry in Foreign Policy, outlining the tightening Israel-Azerbaijani relationship, and how that could eliminate a major obstacle to an Israeli strike — mid-air refueling. (Israeli jets could easily land in Azerbaijan to refuel, Perry writes, obviating the need for a single return flight.)
On the other hand, as Jonathan Tobin at Commentary notes — this is good news for anyone who hopes that Iran will stand down from its suspected nuclear program:
The American motive for leaking the story is clear. By making public the fact that the Azeris have more or less been bribed by Israel to give them access to bases that will enable them to easily attack Iran, the United States may be hoping to accomplish two things.
One is to scare the Iranians into finally waving the white flag on its nuclear project. The story ought to make it clear to the ayatollahs there is no way they can protect themselves from either Israel or the United States if push comes to shove. The odds of the Iranians coming to their senses in this manner are slim, but the administration is determined to do whatever it can to keep the window for diplomacy on the nuclear question open for as long as it can.
The second motive is to forestall any Israeli attack. Making public the Azeri role in the military plan might force the Jewish state’s Asian ally to back away from any involvement in the project.
So, yes, the leaks in the Azeri story might inhibit an Israeli attack — but they could also simultaneously reinforce the potency of its threat.
On the other hand, Perry — a onetime adviser to Yasser Arafat whose earlier report on Israel’s alleged attempted alliance with
agents of the MEK an anti-Iranian regime designated terrorist group Sunni extremists, might indeed have caused Israel operational damage — is appalled at Tobin. Not for the conclusion Tobin actually draws, but for the conclusion Perry mistakenly imputes to him. Here’s his Tweet:
#Commentary actually likes my Azeri article in #FP: b/c it makes #Israel attack easier! #breathtaking
No, in fact, Commentary comes to two conclusions that would mitigate against any attack. But (calling Dr. Freud), this is an interesting reveal: Perry wants to make an attack harder.
The question then is — do his sources?