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Obama Stands Up to Israel, Tamps Down Iran War Threats

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

In a stunning departure from recent Israeli threats to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday used an interview with Israel's Army radio to assert that any attack on Iran "is very far off," adding, "We haven't made any decision to do this."

When pressed as to whether "very far off" meant weeks or months, Barak replied: "I wouldn't want to provide any estimates. It's certainly not urgent. I don't want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen." The world should be thankful for small favors.

Even more intriguing was the phrasing that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put under its headline, "Barak: Israel "very far off' from decision on Iran attack." In a sub-head, Haaretz highlighted an equally important change in Israel's stance regarding Iran:
"Israel believes Iran itself has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to intelligence assessment to be presented later this week to U.S. Joint Chief of Staff [Martin] Dempsey."

Haaretz did not specify its sourcing for that information. However, if it's correct, it puts Israel in line with senior U.S. policy and intelligence officials -- like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper -- who have tenaciously held to the "Iran-has-not-yet-decided" judgment since it was promulgated unanimously by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in November 2007.

That National Intelligence Estimate stated up front: "This NIE does not (italics in original) assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons." Among its declassified Key Judgments were:

"We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; ... Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005."

If you thought that those conclusions in 2007 might be greeted in Official Washington or Tel Aviv with the sighs of relief, you would have been mistaken. Not only were the Israelis in high dudgeon, but so were President George W. Bush and -- even more so -- Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been persuaded to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in 2008.

Here's what Bush wrote in his memoir, Decision Points: "But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"

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For his part, Cheney publicly expressed his chagrin at the wobbliness of his president/protege. The former Vice President told "Fox News Sunday" on Aug. 30, 2009, that he was isolated among Bush advisers in his enthusiasm for war with Iran.

This Time It's Different

Before Wednesday, when Defense Minister Barak promised no imminent Israeli attack on Iran, the unholy alliance between Israeli hawks and American neoconservatives was exuding confidence that they would prevail in Washington -- and also in Tel Aviv -- in pressing for war with Iran.

Yet, this alliance faced two key obstacles that weren't there when a similar coalition successfully pushed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This time, the White House and other key elements of the U.S. national security apparatus are dead set against attacking Iran or provoking an Iranian attack. They have apparently now made that clear, in unmistakable terms, to Israeli leaders.

And this time, U.S. intelligence has not been "fixed around the policy." CIA analysts have not been badgered into falsifying their assessments to please higher-ups.

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To disrupt what had appeared to be an unstoppable march toward war with Iran, gaining momentum in December and early January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta intervened with his own rendition of "Let me be clear."

Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Jan. 8, and apparently unsure whether host Bob Schieffer would have the courage to ask the $64 question, Panetta decided to ask it himself rhetorically: "Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."

Yet, in a highly illustrative example of media hypersensitivity on this issue, PBS was not even willing to let the Defense Secretary's comment reach the ears of the network's listeners. Its "NewsHour" program deleted Panetta's emphatic "No" and played only his subsequent comment:

"But we know that they are 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."

Got that? Panetta said Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, but Iran better not develop a nuclear weapon because that's a red line for us. Clearly, Panetta was trying to be all things to all people, but he had spoken emphatically to the key question of whether Iran was "trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)

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