Israel Pulse

An Israeli scare campaign about Iran's nuclear program?

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Article Summary
Some Israeli security experts doubt that Iran truly aspires to produce a nuclear bomb, blaming Israeli leadership of using scare tactics.

My colleague Ben Caspit wondered this week in Al-Monitor whether those providing the information, or maybe fiction, regarding Israeli spying on the United States are connected to senior officials in the US government.

If indeed the White House, Pentagon or State Department decided to taint the relationship between Washington and Israel, this should worry Israeli citizens no less than the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Even if the Barack Obama administration is not party to this conspiracy, however, it is not enough to placate those seeking to help Israel. Why did the editors of an esteemed American magazine like Newsweek choose to publish a story that harms the Israeli-US relationship despite the vigorous denials of the highest diplomatic and security echelons in Israel? How did it come to pass that those very senior echelons are less credible than a dubious journalistic story about a man in an air-conditioning duct?

For that matter, a new book published in the United States, “Manufactured Crisis,” by Gareth Porter, contends that in 2002, Mossad planted fabricated documents on a laptop about the uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz. According to Porter, these documents were the basis for the US-Israeli claim that Iran misled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for two decades. He quotes a retired senior German official telling him that an activist in the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (an organization that worked for Saddam Hussein against the Iranian regime and had close ties with Mossad) had given the documents to German intelligence. Porter contends that the IAEA's report from 2003 relied on these same documents. The neoconservatives in Washington, who sought to overthrow the regime in Iran, rushed to spread the sensational headline of the report via the global press, according to which Tehran had for 18 years hidden a comprehensive plan to develop a nuclear weapon. The organization’s inspectors determined within a few months that the information on Natanz was baseless.

The official American intelligence assessment published in 2007 reported the high likelihood that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. According to Porter, Israeli elements responsible for following the Iranian nuclear program then launched an intelligence and diplomatic campaign to convince the United States that the report was wrong. The effort was accompanied by pressure on the IAEA and leaks to the international press that Iran had continued research into nuclear weapons and nuclear test simulations after 2003.

Shmuel Meir — a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and former researcher at the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the strategic unit of the IDF’s Planning Department — praised Porter profusely. He wrote in his May 7 blog, “Porter is perhaps the only journalist and investigator in the world who read, with an unbiased eye, all the IAEA reports and the American intelligence reports of the last several decades regarding the Iranian issue. Likewise, he interviewed several generations of officials in the American administration (including in intelligence) who worked on the Iranian nuclear program, and carefully analyzed testimony they gave in Congress.”

Porter’s story also received the backing of a very senior intelligence source who cannot be suspected of hostility toward Israel — Brig. Gen. (Res.) Uzi Eilam, a recipient of the Israel Security Prize who served for almost a decade (1976-85) as the director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. Eilam has accused Israeli politicians of sowing “unnecessary and terrible fear” among the Israeli public over the Iranian nuclear program. In a May 19 interview with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Eilam said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “uses the Iranian threat to achieve a variety of political goals.” According to him, the timeline of the Iranian nuclear project, “even in a very pessimistic view,” is a matter of about 10 years to reach an operational weapon that can be installed on missiles. Contrary to the official Israeli position, according to which the Iranians are misleading the entire world, Eilam argued that the steps Tehran took upon itself (for example, diluting some of its nuclear fuel) are significant, and that it is holding an intensive dialogue with IAEA officials, who have ascertained that it is not developing nuclear weapons.

“I’m not even sure that Iran would want the bomb,” Eilam said surprisingly, “it could be enough for them to be a nuclear threshold state — so that it could be a regional power and intimidate its neighbors.” He argued further that even the Syrians would have “needed a few more good years,” until their reactor, which Israel, according to foreign sources, bombed in September 2007, could have worked effectively, not to speak of the capacity to assemble a warhead on a missile. “I don’t believe that with the Syrian level and the technological ability it could be possible to even consider reaching weapons capability in a reasonable timeline.”

Eilam, who opposed the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, stood by his opinion that the Iraqis were far from building a nuclear weapon: “Something like 10 years from where they were at the time of the destruction of the reactor.” He said Prime Minister Menachem Begin had thought that the Likud Party would lose power in upcoming elections. According to Eilam, Begin told him, “We have to do it now, because they [leaders of the Labor Party] wouldn’t dare bomb it.” The bombing of the reactor ultimately helped the Likud win the election.

Senior Israeli security officials told Al-Monitor, “With all due respect to Eilam, he’s out of the loop.” According to them, Israeli intelligence has credible information that shows Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons as well as its ability to realize its plans in the near future. An official who has close knowledge of the story of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq documents dismissed Porter’s assertion that Mossad had planted fabricated information on the laptop of one of the organization’s activists.

If so, why did Israel become such an excellent exporter of spy stories and lies? On the right wing, they would explain that everything starts and ends with anti-Semitism. On the left wing, they would try to convince you that everything starts and ends with the occupation. 

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Found in: united states, syria, nuclear program, israel, iraq, iran, international atomic energy agency, benjamin netanyahu

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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