What Did the Israeli Army Chief Actually Say About Iran?

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.)

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly 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.

Goldberg's 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. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. 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.

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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