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Gareth Porter: Panetta’s statement could be a warning to Israel not to attack Iran, but it’s too weak to be meaningful

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington, the rhetoric increases to heat up about Iran building a nuclear weapon. Tougher sanctions have been imposed. We hear even more saber-rattling from Israel. And, we’re told, all because there is a nuclear weapon program in Iran. Well, there’s a problem with that. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on January 8 was on the TV show Face the Nation, and he was asked directly: is Iran building a nuclear bomb? And here’s what he said.


LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No, but we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is: do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.

BOB SCHIEFFER, FACE THE NATION (CBS): What would happen if Israel does decide to take this matter into its own hands? And what would be our reaction and response to that?

PANETTA: If the Israelis made that decision, we would have to be prepared to protect our forces in that situation. And that’s what we’d be concerned about.


JAY: Now joining us to help unpack all of this and more is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative journalist and often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Hello again, Paul.

JAY: So let’s start with the first part of what Panetta said, this issue that Iran might be going to the point of capability, but not actually having decided to build a weapon. A lot of critics of U.S. policy have been saying more or less that. And if I understand correctly, to cross the Rubicon and actually go to the decision and execute on the decision of building a weapon, Iran would probably even have to pull out of the NPT, ’cause you couldn’t hide that kind of a move. But in terms of U.S. policy, and certainly the rhetoric, we’ve all been left with the impression that there is a bomb being built, and Panetta seems to be saying no. So what do you make of that?

PORTER: Well, what Panetta said is, of course, perfectly consonant with the position of the U.S. intelligence community, both in 2007 and (more or less) again in 2011, when they put together a follow-up estimate on the Iranian nuclear program. They concluded that the Iranians had stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and that they had not really systematically began it again since then, although they made some, you know, remark to the effect that there was some limited work that had been done, but clearly not systematic moves toward a nuclear weapon. So that’s the intelligence community speaking.

And the White House position—that is, President Barack Obama’s position—has been quite clear in the past that the U.S. believes indeed that Iran would have to kick the IAEA out of Iran in order to basically move to a nuclear weapon, to produce a nuclear weapon. And that would be a clear signal well ahead of time that would allow the United States the time and the signal to respond. And this is rather different, by the way, from what former secretary of defense Robert Gates had been saying during his last couple of years in the Obama administration. He was suggesting that the red line ought to be a lot closer to, you know, a capability, rather than waiting for Iran to be—to edge closer to the line where they would have the capability to manufacture a weapon, even if they didn’t test or actually or simply manufacture the weapon.

JAY: Right. I mean, Panetta’s phrasing’s very specific. And these guys use microscopes before they would say something like this publicly. And he’s saying they haven’t decided to build a weapon. I mean, all the propaganda in Washington, and certainly in Israel, is that not only have they decided they’re on the road there, and even if at this point they’re building capability, it’s because they’ve already decided to go the next step. And Panetta is saying no. And as you said, that’s exactly what American intelligence said, but it’s sure not what we’re hearing in the general public discourse from these people.

PORTER: That’s true. But, again, it’s not stated explicitly. When you hear White House comments or statements about the Iranian nuclear program it’s always merely implicit (rather than stated explicitly) that the Iranians are, you know, pushing toward having a nuclear weapon. They always stop short of that. So it’s really important to read all statements coming out of this administration with a fine ear to the nuances, the differences between what is suggested or implied and what is stated quite explicitly.

JAY: Well, I mean, this certainly contradicts what Netanyahu was saying completely, who’s talking all the time about Iran’s decided and is making a bomb. And the other part of this which deals with Israel (which we played a little earlier), when asked what would you do if Israel attacked Iran, he says, we will defend our troops, our forces. He doesn’t say we’re going to come and defend Israel. And I’m wondering how much this statement on Face the Nation was actually all directed at Israel, saying, you know, don’t do this, don’t be so sure we’re going to be with you on this.

PORTER: Well, my guess is that it was in fact another instalment in what appears to be a bit of a campaign by the Obama White House to try to distance the United States—certainly his administration—from the threat of an attack by Israel, on the grounds—I think perhaps quite sound ground—that they are not at all confident that Netanyahu would not strike at Iran without consulting the United States, and indeed could do so during 2012, in fact, during a presidential election campaign, which would be the moment where he might well feel that Obama would be under the greatest political pressure to go along with or even join in with an attack on Iran, if not to begin with, at least in the second round, after Iran had retaliated against Israel, and perhaps even against U.S. military installations in the region.

JAY: Yeah, and we know Netanyahu and Likud is very close to the Republican Party, and particularly to the neoconservative section of the Republican Party. And if they’re looking [incompr.] at the moment, if you had to guess, another four years of President Obama, and if in fact Obama’s not so keen on this—and the Republicans certainly are more keen on attacking Iran—maybe that is the time when you want to create some problems. But you pointed out in your previous interview we did with you just a few days ago that if Obama’s serious about demarcating his policy from Israel’s, he’s sure doing it in a lukewarm way.

PORTER: I think he’s doing a very poor job of differentiating U.S. policy from that of Israel. He’s got to go beyond simply saying we think this is a bad idea. There are two reasons for that. One is in terms of policy. The pro-Netanyahu people in Israel have publicly stated that, well, we look at U.S. policy statements, even by the president of the United States, and he’s saying, we think this is unwise, it’s not going to be effective, but he doesn’t talk about the legitimacy of it, he doesn’t talk about the legality of it, and therefore we have the impression that the United States government understands the situation, quote-unquote. So basically this idea that the Obama administration is saying to Israel, no, this is a bad idea and we think you should do it, it’s not enough. I mean, but Netanyahu has already discounted that and is really counting on—or does in fact believe that he would be in a position where the United States, under an Obama administration, would be forced politically to join in and support Israel.

JAY: Right. I mean, it’s not like the Obama administration has done much of anything to actually conflict with Netanyahu’s plans in Israel. You know, there’s been some rhetoric, but not a heck of a lot of real action. On the other hand, Netanyahu would publicly much prefer some really hard-right neocon Republicans in office, and maybe he would like to find some way to influence that outcome if he could.

PORTER: Well, absolutely. And Netanyahu prefers someone who would not only join in if United States installations were attacked or if Israel were attacked, but somebody who would actually attack Iran with U.S. Air Force planes to begin with. That’s what the Israelis really want and what—they’ve always wanted that. And therefore the Republicans are infinitely preferable to Obama, on the grounds that they have the rhetoric right, that they’re willing to talk about U.S. actually striking against Iran.

But there’s a second point that I want to make sure we include in this discussion as to why Obama’s present stance is not going to be effective in convincing Iran, certainly, that the United States has nothing to do with the Israeli threat to Iran, and that is that the U.S. military has become so intertwined with the Israeli military over the last few years, and particularly during the Obama administration itself, that the United States would have to take actual movements to withdraw U.S. military cooperation from Israel in order to impress the Iranians. For example, of course, the United States is carrying out major military drills or exercises in Israel with the Israelis, with thousands of U.S. troops coming from Europe, in a simulation of an Iranian missile attack on Israel. Now that—so that’s one level [incompr.]

JAY: And that’s taking place in—like, as we speak, practically.

PORTER: As we speak or very, very soon. I don’t know the exact date.

JAY: Yeah. Apparently some troops, American troops, our journalist in Israel tells us, Lia Tarachansky, have already started showing up.

PORTER: Yes. But even beyond that, there is actually a little-known but well-documented U.S. permanent military presence in southern Israel, in the Negev Desert, which is a U.S.-Israeli joint radar station, and it was initially established in September, I believe, of 2008 and was clearly a move by the Bush administration to satisfy the Israelis that the United States is somehow committed militarily to assisting Israel in the event of a war with Iran. And so, you know, we are, as I say, very thoroughly integrated into Israeli defense policy, and even into an actual war between Israel and Iran at this moment, unless Obama takes real action to change that.

JAY: And he doesn’t want to, ’cause he’ll look soft on Iran and the Republicans will come after him. So it all becomes another calculation about the presidential elections.

PORTER: Exactly. And more to the point, not strong enough in support of Israel, of course.

JAY: Right. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.