Pentagon: Israeli-U.S. Missile Exercise Postponed at Israel's Request (Updated)

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Here's an interesting development in a story I wrote about earlier today: Despite claims made in the Israeli press that the Obama Administration, worried about provoking Iran, initiated a postponement of a massive joint Israeli-U.S. missile defense exercise scheduled to begin later this month, Pentagon officials say it was the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, who asked his counterpart, Leon Panetta, for the postponement. The claim that the exercise, dubbed "Austere Challenge 12," was scrubbed from the calendar because the Obama Administration feared provoking the Iranian regime is "baseless," one senior Pentagon official told me just a few minutes ago, in a telephone call initiated by a group of senior defense officials.

One of the senior defense officials told me this: "Minister Barak called Secretary Panetta and asked if we could take the exercise off the calendar. The Israelis were concerned that they did not have the resources in place to carry it out effectively." The exercise, which was to begin with a live-fire drill, would have involved several thousand Israelis as well as several thousand American military personnel, and Barak told Panetta, according to these officials, that Israel could not pull together the resources necessary to stage the exercise successfully. "Our military is much bigger than theirs and this exercise was going to consume a much larger portion of their resources," the official said.

Panetta, according to these Pentagon sources, was concerned that the Iranians would interpret the scrubbing of the exercise, well, the way it's currently being interpreted, as a sign of American wavering in the face of Iranian threats. He told Barak that he would not agree to a cancellation, as Barak was suggesting, but only a postponement. "Panetta's initial reaction was, 'I don't want to take this off the calendar.' He said it would send the wrong signal." After multiple conversations, Panetta and Barak agreed to postpone Austere Challenge 12 until fall.

This is the Pentagon's message. I'm awaiting Israeli comment on this recounting of events, which I will post when I get it.

UPDATE: As of 5:15 p.m., Eastern, still waiting on that Israeli comment. There seems to be much confusion and awkwardness about the delayed exercise. Laura Rozen broke the original story, and she has a useful summary of the miscommunications and misfirings here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/pentagon-israeli-us-missile-exercise-postponed-at-israels-request-updated/251512/