The U.S. Can't Figure Out Israel's Intentions on Iran

American officials say they still aren't sure how seriously to take the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran

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A 2007 photo shows Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, right, looking through binoculars without realizing the plastic lens-caps were left on / AP

The United States is not sure how seriously Israel is considering using armed force to derail Iran's suspected nuclear-weapon operations, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

There is a "sense of opacity" in Washington on the developments that might lead Israel to attack its longtime foe, and on when a strike might take place, a high-level U.S. national security official said.

Two senior U.S. senators offered similar thoughts on the matter. "I don't think the administration knows what Israel is going to do. I'm not sure Israel knows what Israel is going to do.... That's why they want to keep the other guys guessing--keep the bad guys guessing," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Added the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona: "I'm sure [administration officials] don't know what the Israelis are going to do. They didn't know when the Israelis hit the reactor in Syria. But the Israelis usually know what we're going to do."

Speculation has increased in recent months that Israel has been planning military action against Iran, particularly in the wake of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report that further pointed toward potential Iranian nuclear-weapon efforts. Israeli leaders have publicly dismissed such talk, while reaffirming that they have eliminated no options to deal with the perceived threat.

Tehran says that its atomic program has no arms component.

The Obama administration at the moment continues to favor diplomatic efforts and punitive economic measures to address the nuclear standoff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Friday that an attack on Iran could lead to "an escalation" that might "consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret."

Lack of clarity on the question could allow the administration to say it had not known Israel was planning an assault on Iran, according to Reuters. "There are plenty of instances when the Israelis have undertaken action without informing the United States first," one former U.S. official said. "So not always should we assume a level of coordination [between Washington and Israe] in advance on all issues."

"Israel has a long history of conducting military operations from Baghdad to Tunis without giving Washington advance notice," former CIA official Bruce Riedel noted.

Israel is believed in Washington to have identified "red lines" on Iranian atomic activities that, if breached, could lead to military action, according to an official. 

The Israeli air force on Monday allowed journalists to visit a base that houses drones that could provide data for an attack on Iran, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The deputy head of the 200th Squadron at Palmachim Air Base, not far from Tel Aviv, would not address the situation with Iran. "All I can say is that we can get anywhere we want and need to," said the officer identified only as Major Gil.

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