U.S. military chief Dempsey arrives in Israel as allies huddle on Iran

Laura Rozen
January 19, 2012

The United States' top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, arrived in Israel Thursday to confer with Israeli allies on policy to Iran.

It is Dempsey's first trip to the Jewish state since assuming the post of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in September. His visit comes as the United States and Israel have been engaged in intense efforts to reconcile their timelines to try and persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

In advance of Dempsey's arrival, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday signaled some progress on that front, telling Israel's Army Radio that any Israeli decision to pursue military action against Iran's nuclear facilities is in the future.

"We haven't made any decision to do this," Barak said, according to Haaretz newspaper. "This entire thing is very far off."

"I don't think our ties with the United States are such that they have no idea what we are talking about," Barak added.

Barak's assertion came as an Israeli intelligence assessment reportedly judged that Iran has not yet decided whether to assemble a nuclear warheads--though it is considered to be advancing efforts to pursue some of the elements that would be needed for a bomb.

"The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb," Haaretz's Amos Harel reported.

Israel's assessment is "that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon," Harel wrote. "Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision. Israel also believes the Iranian regime now faces an unprecedented threat to its stability," both from intensified international economic sanctions and economic and political unrest at home.

While that reported Israeli intelligence assessment seemingly jives with American intelligence judgments that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a bomb, Washington Middle East experts note that conclusion has not been the key driver for Israeli decisionmaking about whether or when it should strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Another factor, they note, is when Israeli intelligence judged key elements of Iran's nuclear program would become invulnerable to Israeli military capabilities.

"The driver for a long time in the Israeli decision-making process is when Israel would lose its opportunity to strike, not when Iran" would build a nuclear warhead, Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Yahoo News Wednesday.

"Israel's decisonmaking is driven not by Iran's construction of a warhead alone, but by constraints on the timeline in which Israel can operate," Clawson continued. "The Iranians may be able to harden and disperse their systems in a way that Israel would lose its opportunity to act."

Among the key concerns then for Israel is Iran's recently announced decision to launch enrichment operations at a second buried and highly fortified enrichment facility, known as Fordo, near Qom. That site may be considered less vulnerable to Israeli military capabilities alone.

Iran has invited UN atomic energy agency inspectors to come to Iran at the end of the month, after the agency this month confirmed Iranian claims it was indeed moving to launch enrichment operations at Fordo.

Iran is developing the capabilities to assemble their first nuclear devices, veteran Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman told Yahoo News by email Wednesday. "But to go ahead and assemble the bombs, a political decision is needed," he said. "In the last few months the Israeli intelligence reached the conclusion that a decision hasn't been made yet."

"The Iranian leadership faces a huge dilemma," Melman continued. "They want the bomb as a guarantee for the survival of the regime. But if they press ahead and take the decision, they will be subjected to a great danger of not only tough sanctions... but also to a possible military strike by the U.S. (not Israel)."

"If they do not make such a decision [to make the bomb], the sanctions will be lifted and the economic situation improved but the regime fears it will weaken it," he said. "They are in a sort of Catch-22 situation-- this is their 'to be or not to be' question."

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