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Iran Looms over Bush Trip

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: January 11, 2008

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Besides his interest in generating momentum behind the Annapolis peace initiative, President Bush also seeks to bolster containment of Iran (WashPost) in his talks in the Mideast. Israel, long focused on security threats closer to home, has in recent years concluded Iran, with its long-range missiles, nuclear ambitions, and violent proxies, poses the greatest single threat (CSMonitor) to its security. Analysts suggest Washington’s revised analysis on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is fueling concern in Israel and intensified rivalry with Tehran. “We’re concerned that the Iran nuclear program is going ahead,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman said ahead of Bush’s visit on January 9. “We're concerned that there shouldn't be complacency in the international community.”

This despite a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in November 2007 concluded that Iran likely ceased its nuclear weapons development in 2003. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly challenged the new U.S. interpretation (Haaretz), and would like to convince Bush to keep the threat of U.S. military action against Iran on the table. During his visit to Jerusalem on January 9, Bush expressed solidarity with Israel declaring Iran “a threat to world peace.” And Gerald M. Steinberg, director of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, says Israel’s initial alarm over the NIE has subsided somewhat. But it has not subsided entirely. Public officials invoke Iran regularly as a mortal threat, and, for instance, the Jerusalem Post devotes an entire section of its website to the “Iranian Threat,” listed on its masthead alongside such staples as sports, business, and features.

Israel has grown increasingly wary (Defense News) of its ascendant neighbor, whose rhetorical barbs and support for Hamas and Hezbollah have directly challenged Israeli security, a point driven home by the brief 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The enmity, of course, is reciprocal. A 2001 analysis of Iran’s security policy by the RAND Corporation notes that Israel—a nuclear armed state—dominates the national security debate inside Iran. “There is almost universal agreement that the Jewish state is an active regional rival bent on checking Iran’s political and military power,” the RAND authors write.

The recently released NIE further heightened tension between Israel and Iran. Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’ chief correspondent in Jerusalem, tells CFR.org that Israel is “afraid” the new NIE has tied Bush’s hands on dealing with Tehran. Bruce Riedel, a former defense and intelligence official, tells Newsweek that Israel could decide to confront Iran with unilateral force should the United States opt for a purely diplomatic path. “I came back from a trip to Israel in November convinced that Israel would attack Iran,” Riedel says.

Bush faces skepticism among U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, too. After a three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank he flew to the Gulf region, where some allies called on him to avoid military confrontation with Tehran (AFP). Israelis and Arabs alike see the revised intelligence estimate as a sign of U.S. weakness, a view Washington has sought to dispel. Just after the NIE became public, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Bahrain to assure members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Washington would “keep all options open.” In a nod to critics he warned Iran not to misjudge the United States as weakened or overstretched by the Iraq experience.

Still, there is some disagreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, especially between Israel and the United States. A new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that while the United States and Israel have differing political and strategic interests when it comes to containing Iran, the two risk a more profound split over the Iranian nuclear threat. “If ever there was a test case of the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship…the Iranian nuclear program is it.” Then again, Stratfor, an intelligence analysis website, posits that the disagreement between Israel and the United States could be a ploy aimed at making a unilateral Isreali strike look more plausible. As this Backgrounder explains, analysts face worrisome gaps in their intelligence on Iran.

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