HERZLIYA, Israel – Top Israeli military and government officials on Friday cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to Iran's escalating nuclear threats even though some say a military option is inevitable.
By Jack Guez, AFP/Getty Images
"You cannot apply conventional standards to a non-conventional regime," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon told officials at the end of an annual two-day gathering focusing on Israel's security and strategic concerns.
Israeli leaders on Thursday made their strongest suggestions yet of possible airstrikes against Iran, citing Iranian plans to move uranium enrichment facilities into newly constructed mountain bunkers.
"Whoever says 'later' may find that later is too late," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the security forum.
Barak said "no options should be taken off the table. … Action must also be considered."
But on Friday, officials at the gathering advised caution.
"Israel is shooting itself in both feet" by focusing so intensely on Iran," said Shahram Chubin of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program. He argued that "Iran is a distraction" used for political purposes "to avoid dealing with the occupation."
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., admitted there's little Israel can do to stop a nuclear Iran, including launching a military attack.
Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, said the country needs to be patient.
"Many argue that the (sanctions) aren't moving fast enough, they never seem to move fast enough," he said. "But we're not doing all that bad … we need to look at the sunny side of the situation."
He added that Israel should "avoid self-victimization."
"We're not victims," he said. "We should talk like a power, we should act like a power, and we should gain results like a power."
What's different about the latest rhetoric is that Israeli leaders "think their opportunity to act is shutting this year," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA adviser on South Asia and the Middle East to the White House.
Israeli officials say that the new Iranian enrichment facility Iran is building under a mountain in Qoms will be impregnable even to Israel's world-class bunker-busting bombs, Riedel says. And "the more they rattle the saber, they know it encourages the Europeans and Americans and everyone else to find non-military solutions."
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to U.S. airmen in Germany, said Friday the key to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is keeping global support for tough economic sanctions.
"My view is that right now the most important thing is to keep the international community unified," Panetta said, "so we're keeping that pressure on to convince Iran that they shouldn't develop a nuclear weapon, that they should join the international family of nations" and abide by international norms.
"If they don't, we have all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to," he said.
Panetta wouldn't dispute a report that he believes Israel may attack Iran this spring in an attempt to set back the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
On Thursday, Panetta was asked by reporters to comment on a Washington Post opinion column by David Ignatius that said the secretary believes there is a "strong likelihood" that Israel will attack Iran in April, May or June.
Asked whether he disputes the report, Panetta said, "No, I'm just not commenting."
On Friday, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened retaliation against any attack, as well as Western-backed oil sanctions.
"Threatening Iran and attacking Iran will harm America," Khamenei said. "Sanctions will not have any impact on our determination to continue our nuclear course."
He also said in remarks delivered to worshipers at prayers in Tehran and broadcast on state TV that the country would continue its controversial nuclear program, and warned that any military strike by the U.S. would only make Iran stronger.
Riedel said he believes the Obama administration "couldn't be more clearer" that it does not want Israel to strike because that would shatter the international coalition that has formed against Iran and disrupt energy markets at a time of economic instability in the U.S. and Europe.
Iran, which borders Afghanistan, where the U.S. hopes to pull out troops by next year, could also "make a difficult war even harder than it already is," Riedel said.
"I think the administration's nightmare is of course that it's an election year and it doesn't want to make it seem they are not tough on Iran," Riedel said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that the administration wants "to make sure that the implementation of those sanctions is handled in a way that does not inadvertently do any harm to our allies or to the oil markets."
"But we believe there's a way to implement them appropriately that achieves the goal that those sanctions have, which is to further isolate and pressure Iran," Carney said.
Israeli warnings push the sanctions effort along, Riedel says.
"The more they talk about military action the more it concentrates the mind of the Europeans, Chinese, the Russians, everyone to find an alternative," he says. "The more the Israelis say their patience or window is wearing out, the more it pressures others to find stronger alternatives that are stronger than they initially intended them to be."
On the streets of Israel, people aren't sure what to believe.
"We see Iran as a threat, and in some ways it's understandable because of the way the Iranian leader speaks about the Jewish state, but in a lot of other ways, the Israeli media does a great job of exacerbating the threat — and that's the picture that most Israelis see," said Edo Konrad, 24, of Tel Aviv. "We think of Iran as a genocidal, anti-Semitic regime and forget that outside of Israel, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East actually lives in Iran."
Others expressed curiosity to know more.
"I feel like I don't know a lot about what's actually going on inside Iran or what's really happening between our two countries," said Ayana Lekach, who lives on a kibbutz in the Western Galilee. "I don't really care or trust what they say in the media, but I am very interested in knowing what the people in Iran really think about their fundamentalist religious regime."
"I don't think they'll do it," said Mattan Kaminer of Jerusalem, who works as a translator. "The U.S. calls the shots, and it's not in their interests right now."Contributing: David Jackson in Washington, D.C.; Carolyn Pesce in McLean, Va.; the Associated Press