Defence secretary Leon Panetta has a lot on his mind these days, from cutting the defence budget to managing the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan. But his biggest worry is the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran over the next few months.
Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the US could then stop them militarily.
Israeli PM Benjamin Neta­n­yahu doesn’t want to leave the fate of Israel depe­ndent on American action, which would be triggered by intelligence that Iran is building a bomb, which it hasn’t done yet.
Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak may have signaled the prospect of an Israeli attack soon when he asked last month to postpone a planned US-Israel military exercise that would culminate in a live-fire phase in May. Barak apologised that Israel couldn’t devote the resources to the annual exercise this spring.
President Obama and Panetta are said to have cautioned the Israelis that the US opposes an attack, believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions programme and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold. But the White House hasn’t yet decided precisely how the US would respond if the Israelis do attack.
The Obama administration is conducting discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the US: whether Iran would target US ships in the region or try to close the Strait of Hormuz; and what effect the conflict and a likely spike in oil prices would have on the fragile global economy.
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)