Tensions between Iran and Israel continue to escalate amid reports over the past week that Tel Aviv has drawn up plans for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US presidential election in November.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the country’s new ambassador to China, Matan Vilnai, recently discussed precise estimates of Israeli casualties, and the timeframe of a possible war with Iran. A hypothetical war with Iran would probably last a month, and include about 500 estimated Israeli casualties from Iranian missile strikes, Vilnai told Israeli newspaper Maariv on Wednesday.
Though Israel has repeatedly threatened preemptive strikes against Iran over the country’s controversial nuclear program, this latest round of saber-rattling is taking place under slightly different circumstances.
A new, last-minute National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) update provided to the Obama administration mirrored Israeli intelligence that Iran had made bigger nuclear advances than previously thought, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Sunday. Iran’s alleged progress towards nuclear weaponry was “far beyond the scope known” to UN inspectors, the report said.
Haaretz did not name any sources or confirm any information in its report, quoting a senior Israeli official who declined to be identified.
Tel Aviv seems to be taking action in support of its hawkish stance, testing emergency text-messaging services in some cities, and increasing the sale and distribution of gas-masks. Recent polls also suggest that, while domestic Israeli opinion is still opposed to war against Iran without international support, that stance is gradually softening as the government seems to be preparing its citizens for war.
Another consideration is the November US presidential election: Israeli officials would rather strike sooner, with Barack Obama in office, than risk the unknowns of a Mitt Romney administration.
"If Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to," the unidentified Israeli official told Haaretz.
The current instability in Syria, Iran’s biggest regional ally, lends credence to the theory that Israel’s best opportunity to strike may be imminent.
Leon Panetta and the Obama administration have signaled no change in their preference that the situation to be resolved through diplomacy, leading to the conclusion that if Israel finally decides to strike, it will do so alone.
“I've said this before, I'll say it now: I don't believe they made a decision as to whether or not they will – they will go in and attack Iran at this time," Panetta told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. "Obviously, they're an independent, they're a sovereign country. They'll ultimately make decisions based on what they think is in their national security interest…The reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate."
But without US backing, Israel’s repeated threats to attack Iran’s nuclear sites are being met with increasing skepticism.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official, echoed that sentiment, telling Bloomberg Businessweek that the Israelis are “almost in the comic situation of threatening to strike repeatedly – this is the third threat in three months – but nothing ever happens, which in my view is damaging to their credibility.”
Tehran dismissed the latest round of Israeli threats as “stupid.”
“Even if some officials in the illegitimate regime [Israel] want to carry out such a stupid action, there are those inside [the Israeli government] who won't allow it because they know they would suffer very severe consequences from such an act," Iranian ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday.