What Did the Israeli Army Chief Actually Say About Iran?

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A Washington Post headline this morning states: "Israeli Military Chief: Iran Will Not Build Nuclear Bomb." From the story beneath the headline:

Israel's military chief said in an interview published Wednesday that he believes Iran will choose not to build a nuclear bomb, an assessment that contrasted with the gloomier statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pointed to differences over the Iran issue at the top levels of Israeli leadership.

The comments by Lt. Gen Benny Gantz, who said international sanctions have begun to show results, could relieve pressure on the Obama administration and undercut efforts by Israeli political leaders to urge the United States to get as tough as possible on Iran.

It is well-known that Israel's army leaders have been more cautious about the Iranian issue than their civilian bosses, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the defense minister. Gantz's predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, was eased out of his position in part because he was strident in expressing his opinion (the correct opinion, I think) that Iran's nuclear program was not an issue that Israel could address alone, but was one that required the concentrated attention of the international community.

The particular statement that prompted The Washington Post headline seems to be this, from the interview that Haaretz's Amos Harel conducted with Gantz:

Iran, Gantz says, "is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile."

As long as its facilities are not bomb-proof, "the program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous." (my italics)

This is a much-more nuanced statement than The Post headline, and story, suggest. First, Gantz seems to be endorsing Ehud Barak's analysis that Iran is trying to enter a "zone of immunity," in which its key nuclear facilities would be hardened against attack before the Supreme Leader gave instructions to actually build a bomb.  Barak has often suggested that once Iran enters this "zone of immunity," it would be too late for Israel to attack, though it wouldn't necessarily be too late for the U.S. to attack (and obviously, Gantz recognizes that the U.S. could do a more complete job of demolishing Iran's nuclear sites than his air force could.)

Gantz seems to be delivering a subtly-worded threat to Khamenei in this interview: "I know you're a rational guy, and as a rational guy, you know that my political leadership will order me to attack your nuclear facilities before you make them invulnerable to a response, so of course, you wouldn't think of trying anything funny. And even though I think you're capable of making rational, self-interested decisions, I also know you're a fundamentalist, and we don't trust you."
 
A couple of other interesting aspects to the Gantz interview. When asked if this year is the decisive year for dealing with Iran, he balked: "Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily 'go, no-go.' The problem doesn't necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We're in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We're closer to the end of the discussions than the middle."

These are words that will comfort Gantz's friends in the Pentagon, and they will certainly provide comfort to the White House, which does not want to see an Israeli attack on Iran before November. My guess is that Gantz trusts President Obama to take action against Iran next year more than Netanyahu trusts him, and this, of course, takes us to the key issue: There would be little worry about a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran this year if Netanyahu believed that a re-elected President Obama would attack Iran's nuclear facilities next year (I'm assuming he believes that President Romney would carry out an attack, as Romney has suggested he would).

More circumstantial evidence that Gantz trusts Obama: He also told Harel that sanctions appear to be working.

So what is Gantz up to? A few possibilities, none of which exclude any other:
1) He's warning Ayotallah Khamenei not to try to enter the zone of immunity, because Israel will stop him before he does;
2) He's warning Netanyahu and Barak that he's unenthusiastic about launching a unilateral strike, and he's telling them to give sanctions more time;
3) He's throwing sand in the eyes of everyone, especially the Iranians, who might come away from coverage of the issue that they can breathe easy until the end of 2012.

It's important to remember, of course, that if the prime minister and the defense minister order Gantz to launch a strike against Iran, he'll launch. If Barak were to have a change of heart on the subject, now that would be hugely important.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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