Israeli intelligence, however, has also failed to provide specific evidence
about secret sites in Iran, according to current and former military and
intelligence officials. In May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited
Washington and, addressing a joint session of Congress, said that Iran
"stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons" that would pose "an
existential threat" to Israel. Olmert noted that Ahmadinejad had questioned
the reality of the Holocaust, and he added, "It is not Israel's threat
alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East
and to the well-being of the world at large." But at a secret intelligence
exchange that took place at the Pentagon during the visit, the Pentagon
consultant said, "what the Israelis provided fell way short" of what would
be needed to publicly justify preventive action.
The issue of what to do, and when, seems far from resolved inside the
Israeli government. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who is
now the director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East
Policy, told me, "Israel would like to see diplomacy succeed, but they're
worried that in the meantime Iran will cross a threshold of nuclear know-how
- and they're worried about an American military attack not working. They
assume they'll be struck first in retaliation by Iran." Indyk added, "At the
end of the day, the United States can live with Iranian, Pakistani, and
Indian nuclear bombs - but for Israel there's no Mutual Assured Destruction.
If they have to live with an Iranian bomb, there will be a great deal of
anxiety in Israel, and a lot of tension between Israel and Iran, and between
Israel and the U.S."
Iran has not, so far, officially answered President Bush's proposal. But its
initial response has been dismissive. In a June 22nd interview with the
Guardian, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, rejected
Washington's demand that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment before talks
could begin. "If they want to put this prerequisite, why are we negotiating
at all?" Larijani said. "We should put aside the sanctions and give up all
this talk about regime change." He characterized the American offer as a
"sermon," and insisted that Iran was not building a bomb. "We don't want the
bomb," he said. Ahmadinejad has said that Iran would make a formal
counterproposal by August 22nd, but last week Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's
supreme religious leader, declared, on state radio, "Negotiation with the
United States has no benefits for us."
Despite the tough rhetoric, Iran would be reluctant to reject a dialogue
with the United States, according to Giandomenico Picco, who, as a
representative of the United Nations, helped to negotiate the ceasefire that
ended the Iran-Iraq War, in 1988. "If you engage a superpower, you feel you
are a superpower," Picco told me. "And now the haggling in the Persian
bazaar begins. We are negotiating over a carpet" - the suspected weapons
program - "that we're not sure exists, and that we don't want to exist. And
if at the end there never was a carpet it'll be the negotiation of the
If the talks do break down, and the Administration decides on military
action, the generals will, of course, follow their orders; the American
military remains loyal to the concept of civilian control. But some officers
have been pushing for what they call the "middle way," which the Pentagon
consultant described as "a mix of options that require a number of Special
Forces teams and air cover to protect them to send into Iran to grab the
evidence so the world will know what Iran is doing." He added that, unlike
Rumsfeld, he and others who support this approach were under no illusion
that it could bring about regime change. The goal, he said, was to resolve
the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., said in a speech
this spring that his agency believed there was still time for diplomacy to
achieve that goal. "We should have learned some lessons from Iraq,"
ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said. "We should have
learned that we should be very careful about assessing our intelligence....
We should have learned that we should try to exhaust every possible
diplomatic means to solve the problem before thinking of any other
He went on, "When you push a country into a corner, you are always giving
the driver's seat to the hard-liners.... If Iran were to move out of the
nonproliferation regime altogether, if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon
program, we clearly will have a much, much more serious problem."