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But Panetta's declaration was so discordant from the anti-Iranian propaganda that has been pouring out of Washington's elite opinion circles that PBS appears to have reflexively censored the Defense Secretary's crucial assessment. After all, if Panetta was allowed to say that Iran was not working on a bomb, all the smart pundits who have been telling the American people the opposite would look rather stupid.
The word "no" also didn't sit well in Israel. There, it appears Israeli hardliners felt that some drastic measure might be needed to stop what was shaping up as a new initiative by the Obama administration to steer the looming crisis with Iran away from the cliff, or at least from the Strait of Hormuz. Israeli hardliners fretted that the U.S. and Iran might be interested in direct talks to defuse the rising tensions. So, what could done?
On Jan. 11, just three days after Panetta's assertion that the Iranians were not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, assassins in Tehren attached a bomb to a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iranian scientist connected with Iran's nuclear development program. The attack killed Roshan, making him the fifth such victim in the last couple of years.
Suspicion immediately focused on Israel, which has historically engaged in cross-border assassinations of people it considers a threat. Usually in these cases, Israel offers some ambiguous semi-denial. This time, however, Israeli officials mostly swaggered. Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, posted a statement on Facebook, saying: "I don't know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear."
And a leak from the Israeli Parliament revealed that on Jan. 10, the day before the killing, Israeli Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that during 2012 Iran would see things happen to it "unnaturally," a reference that Israeli defense and intelligence officials understood to mean covert actions against Iran's nuclear program.
For months now, Israeli officials have spoken almost giddily of the "unnatural" setbacks that have plagued Iran's nuclear program, including cyber-war attacks. Israeli press reports termed Gantz's testimony "particularly prescient."
Even usual apologists for Israeli violence, such as the New York Times, agreed that Israel was likely behind the "unnatural" death of Roshan. Time magazine was even more direct, citing "Western intelligence officials" in a report that said: "Like three previous Iranian scientists ambushed on their morning commute, the latest nuclear expert to die on his way to work was a victim of Israel's Mossad."
The Obama administration clearly was not amused by the assassination. The White House and State Department issued unusually prompt and strong denials of U.S. complicity. Panetta went so far as to say, "We have some ideas as to who might be involved. But we don't know exactly. ..."
On Jan. 12, President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House took the unusual step of releasing a photo of Obama on the phone with Netanyahu. Though the White House did not disclose the details of the conversation, the Obama administration soon signaled not only its displeasure with the murder of Roshan but annoyance over what appeared to be an Israeli strategy to ratchet up tensions with Iran.
Obama's call was followed by the strongest and most tangible move since Panetta's statement on Face the Nation. Three days after the killing of Roshan, large-scale joint U.S.-Israeli military exercises planned for this spring were abruptly postponed, without any cogent explanation.
Amid all this, what has become clearer and clearer is that Israel's chief objective vis-à-vis Iran is not so much thwarting a possible Iranian effort to obtain a nuclear weapon, but rather what we old-timers at the CIA used to call "government overthrow" -- the current sobriquet being "regime change."
Arguably, if the Israelis were genuinely interested in ending or limiting Iran's nuclear program, they would probably not continue doing all they can to sabotage diplomatic efforts toward that end. A stroll down memory lane may be instructive.
Blowing Up Peace
On Oct. 1, 2009, Tehran shocked virtually everyone by agreeing to a proposal to send most (as much as 75 percent) of its low-enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel for a small reactor that produces medical isotopes. (To state what may be obvious, one needs low-enriched uranium before one can refine it to levels needed for medical research and then even higher to weapons-grade.)
In Geneva, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, gave Tehran's agreement "in principle" to the swap plan to representatives of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The meeting was chaired by Javier Solana of the European Union. Reversing the Bush administration's allergy to talking with "bad guys," Obama had sent Under Secretary of State William Burns to the Geneva meeting.