(Corrects wording of quotations in second, 11th, 13th, 14th, 22nd and 23rd paragraphs and attributes comment in fourth paragraph to Bloomberg Television interview.)
Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Israel would be willing to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if doing so only delayed its ability to produce nuclear weapons for a few years, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said.
“One, two, three, four years are a long time in the Middle East -- look what’s happened in the Middle East in the last year alone” in terms of political change, Oren said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “In our neighborhood, those are the rules of the game.”
Israeli leaders have stressed this month that time is running out for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear program that Israel regards as an existential threat.
“Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded,” Oren, 57, said in a subsequent interview yesterday with Bloomberg Television. “We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions do have to be made.”
While Israeli leaders repeatedly have said they may strike Iran’s facilities, the words are now being accompanied by civil-defense measures, including a new system that uses text messages to alert the public to missile attacks, wider distribution of gas masks and the appointment of a new Home Front Defense minister.
Iran may present the most dangerous in an array of threats Israel faces, Oren said, describing them as unprecedented in the country’s 64 years. The Arab Spring has roiled neighbors Egypt and Syria, the Sinai Peninsula is becoming a magnet for militant groups and terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens and property are rising around the world, Oren said.
Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are a grave concern to Israel amid the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Oren said. Israel is in “close consultation with the United States” on the issue, he said.
“The situation in Syria is highly fluid, highly flammable,” he said, so much so that Israel may have to deal with its northern neighbor’s chemical weapons before any confrontation with Iran. “If you had to assign a clock to” Syria, Oren said, “that clock is ticking.”
The U.S. and European allies share Israel’s assessment that Iran is moving closer to being able to make nuclear weapons, while Iran says its program is for civilian power and medical use.
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference Aug. 14 that an Israeli strike on Iran “could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” based on his review of Israel’s military arsenal.
Asked about U.S. assessments that an Israeli attack would delay Iran’s nuclear program for no more than two or three years, Oren said, “I’m not saying we agree or disagree.” He said that concern, based on Israel’s “previous experience, is not an argument against.”
He said that “in the past, we have operated on the assumption that we can only gain a delay.”
When Israel struck at an Iraq reactor in 1981, the assumption was “we would gain between one and two years on that program,” Oren said. “To this day, Iraq does not have a nuclear weapon.”
“No country in the world has a greater stake than Israel” in resolving “the Iranian nuclear threat by diplomatic, non-violent means,” Oren said. Iranian leaders have given “no sign of reacting” to sanctions and “no sign of showing flexibility at the negotiating table,” he said.
Instead, Iran’s nuclear program is “progressing apace,” Oren said, both in the growth of stockpiles of enriched uranium and in efforts to protect operations in underground facilities. The Iranian enrichment operations are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent diversion to bomb use.
“An Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat to Israel,” Oren said. “We don’t just say it. They say it as well. They confirm it.”
The threat has been personal, the ambassador said yesterday. A thwarted 2011 Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington also included plans to kill Oren and others by bombing the Israeli embassy, he said.
Israeli intelligence suggests that, for now, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni doesn’t think the threat of military action is credible, Oren said. Given that, he said Israel wants to see “truly crippling sanctions” and a “credible military threat” against Iran.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Aug. 10 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a strike before the U.S. presidential election. Oren said the Nov. 6 election isn’t a consideration in Israeli decision-making.
“The issue is not the American elections,” he said on Bloomberg Television. “The issue is the degree to which the Iranian program has reached a critical point where they can begin to put together nuclear weapons.”
At the Bloomberg Government session, Oren said that “fundamentally” Israel’s relationship with the United States hasn’t changed under the Obama administration.
While “every administration brings a certain emphasis,” Oren said, “there are also the continuing traditions and the traditional themes in our relationship, and that is a very close strategic alliance.” Additionally, Oren said his nation is “rapidly becoming a vital American commercial interest, something that was unthinkable 40, 50 years ago.”
“We outsource thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jobs to the United States,” Oren said.
Some 60.7 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities without U.S. cooperation, according to a poll published today by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem policy center, and Tel Aviv University. The survey of 516 people has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
Concern that Israel’s moves may herald a possible strike on Iran helped weaken the shekel to its lowest value in almost 15 months this week and pushed the Tel Aviv Stock Market to a three-week low on Aug. 13. The Bloomberg Israel-US Equity Index of the most-traded Israeli companies in New York sank the most in three months, making the benchmark gauge the cheapest in two years relative to the Standard & Poor’s 500.
The cost of insuring Israel’s debt rose yesterday, with five-year credit-default swaps increasing to 155, the highest level in more than two weeks, according to data provider CMA, which is owned by McGraw-Hill Cos. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.
Israel would like to see the ouster of Syria’s Assad, Oren said, as it would deal another blow to Iran, Assad’s primary ally. While Assad’s father, the former president Hafez al-Assad, was ruthless, his son is “ruthless and reckless,” said Oren, an historian.
Assad has supplied the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, both recognized by the U.S. and Israel as terrorist organizations, with thousands of rockets, Oren said.
Oren, who grew up in New Jersey active in Zionist youth movements, is a graduate of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, and Columbia University in New York City. He moved to Israel in the 1970s, and served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, according to the Israeli embassy.
He taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University. His two most recent books, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present,” were New York Times bestsellers.
Oren gave up his American citizenship when he became ambassador in 2009.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 7, Oren said a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to “commit incalculable atrocities” and that the window for diplomacy to avert that “is now almost closed.”
That wouldn’t be the first time Israel has acted militarily in what it describes as self-defense. In addition to its 1981 destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Israel in 2007 attacked a reactor under construction in Syria.
A unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “infinitely more complicated and far less assured of significant success” than the prior attacks, Kenneth Katzman, Middle East military and terrorism analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in Washington wrote in an e-mail.
The Obama administration has pressed Israeli leaders to allow more time for international sanctions to pressure Iran to give up key elements of its nuclear program.
“From our point of view, the window is still open to try to work toward a diplomatic solution,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Aug. 14 at the Pentagon.
One question is whether Israel would inform the Obama administration -- knowing it may disagree -- in advance of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In the case of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the U.S. didn’t know in advance, according Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It came during the Ronald Reagan administration when the U.S. was tilting toward Iraq because of its war with Iran.
“Eager to dispel any semblance of collusion in an attack against America’s new de facto ally, Reagan delayed the delivery of additional jet fighters to Israel,” Oren wrote in “Power, Faith and Fantasy.”
In contrast, Israel and the U.S. consulted closely about what do to with the Syria site and Israel made clear in advance it was going to strike, according to Clawson.
Former President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir “Decision Points” that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Bush “to bomb the compound” in a remote area of Syria. The U.S. refused, after officials cited “low confidence” that Syria was developing nuclear weapons, according to Bush. Bush wrote that Olmert was disappointed.
“The bombing demonstrated Israel’s willingness to act alone,” Bush wrote. “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org