Preparations in Israel for a possible war are focusing new attention on whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and forcing an unwelcome debate in the thick of a presidential campaign about the U.S. role in stopping an Iranian bomb.
A flurry of public statements and anonymous quotes to the Israeli news media in the past week has raised speculation that an Israeli attack could come before the U.S. presidential election in November.
The government appears to be readying the country for war by issuing gas masks, building underground bomb shelters and testing an early-warning system for missiles. The outgoing Israeli home-front defense minister said he had worked to ensure that the nation was ready for a month-long war “on multiple fronts.”
On Friday, the atmosphere grew more heated with sharp comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel’s existence an “insult to all humanity.”
Analysts in the United States and Israel are divided on whether the escalating war of words foreshadows an imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing in hopes of forcing President Obama to issue an ultimatum to Iran that America would do the job itself later. Although Obama has declared flatly that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, analysts suggest that Netanyahu is looking for a deadline on abandoning talks and resorting to military action.
Others argue that the Israeli leader appears to be laying the case for unilateral Israeli action over the objections of Washington and the majority of Israeli public opinion. This view holds that Netanyahu thinks he cannot rely on Obama for help now or later, and that he cannot afford to wait for a friendlier Mitt Romney administration to back him up or do the bombing itself.
A new war in the Middle East would be deeply unpopular among American voters. Even talk of an imminent conflict with Iran could spike gas prices and unsettle the financial markets, possibly worsening the already standstill economy weeks before the November election.
The White House has tried to say as little as possible about the prospect of an Israeli strike or what it might do if talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program — now at an impasse — fall apart.
The Israelis are using the leverage of the U.S. presidential election to seek an explicit statement from Obama that the United States would launch its own attack as early as next year if the talks collapse, analysts and former officials in both the United States and Israel said.
“They are aiming for a specific thing,” said Georgetown University scholar Colin Kahl, formerly the Obama administration’s top Pentagon policy adviser on the Middle East. “They may be trying to push the Obama administration into a much greater declaration of red lines, an even more declarative statement about the use of force.”
Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies agreed, saying, “If the United States makes such a statement, that would allow the Israelis to relax somewhat.”
Even if the timing is hazy, it’s clear that some in the Israeli government do not think they can delay.
“We can’t wait to find out one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn’t act in the end,” an unnamed Israeli official told the left-leaning daily newspaper Haaretz last week. The official is widely believed by analysts in Israel to be Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Israeli capabilities are at the heart of the debate over a military strike. Israeli leaders are concerned that Iran will use more time to move its critical nuclear facilities out of reach of Israel’s arsenal. That would leave only the United States with the unquestioned ability to destroy deeply buried Iranian facilities.
U.S. officials say Israeli leaders are sincere about the need to act quickly, but they said they do not think Netanyahu has made the decision to strike. Rather, the Israeli leader is trying to pressure the United States.
“They are deadly serious, as is the president, about the need to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” a senior U.S. official said. “But there has been far too much talking — background leaks and fabrications — that hurt the cause.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
Obama has already issued the strongest U.S. threat against Iran to date, declaring that the United States will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon and ruling out a policy of containment. He has vowed to use “all options” if need be, but he has not set a deadline.
Former Israeli national security adviser Uzi Dayan, who met with Netanyahu last week, said Israeli leaders don’t doubt Obama’s pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran. But, he said, they “ask themselves whether the Americans are really determined.”
The United States opposes a unilateral Israeli strike now, arguing that there is still time for sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran not to build a nuclear weapon.
Dayan said there is a sense that an American commitment made after the election would carry less weight. “Everyone understands that it has an impact,” he said. “You can’t make promises on the other side of midnight.”
A U.N. nuclear watchdog report due out soon is expected to provide evidence of further progress by Iran in expanding its underground uranium enrichment facility known as Fordow, Western diplomats familiar with the United Nations’ work said.
Built into the side of a mountain and immune from all but the most advanced munitions, Fordow already contains hundreds of working centrifuges for producing low-enriched uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power plants.
Since its nuclear program was exposed a decade ago, Iran has claimed that its objective is to produce electricity, not weapons. But the United States and its allies have maintained that the real goal is the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.
Brulliard reported from Jerusalem. Joby Warrick contributed to this report.