Kudos to Rick Moran at RightWing Nuthouse, for his timely insights on recent meetings between the head of Israel's Mossad, and his counterparts in Washington. As Rick observes, last week's sessions are remarkable in a couple of respects. First of all, it is worth noting that the new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sent his spy chief (Meir Dagan) to Washington, setting the stage for his meeting with President Bush later this month. It is also remarkable that "news" about the meeting apparently came from Israeli sources--and not the U.S. intelligence community--suggesting that the recent "anti-leak" campaign is having some success.
Pressing into intelligence officials into service as diplomats isn't exactly new (George Tenent was sent on several errands to the Middle East by Bill Clinton), but Dagan's mission to Washington certainly establishes a somber tone for discussions about Iran, and upcoming talks between the Israeli Prime Minister and Mr. Bush. As the Times of London noted, Dagan is not given to diplomatic courtesies; the former commando is described as tough and blunt, and he apparenty conveyed a very serious message from Tel Aviv regarding Iran's nuclear intentions.
According to the Sunday Times of London, the Mossad now believes that the Iranians have covert uranium enrichment sites, in addition to their "declared" facilities. That would allow Tehran to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons, while officially "suspending" enrichment activities, possibly to avoid UN sanctions or military strikes. It's a possibility that we've covered on numerous occasions, and it certainly can't be discounted now.
Consider the example of North Korea, which (in some respects) seems to be a model for Tehran. You may recall that Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear program back in 1994, part of the infamous "Agreed To" framework hammered out by ex-president-turned-dictator-coddler Jimmy Carter. As part of the deal, Pyongyang even allowed the IAEA to install video surveillance cameras in its Yongbyon nuclear complex. For the next seven years, the cameras recorded inactivity at Yongbyon, while the North Koreans continued their nuclear program at covert sites. Iran certainly has the capacity to play a similar shell game with a reluctant UN and the equally ineffective IAEA. In fact, some analysts believe Tehran's willingness to discuss possible diplomatic deals all-but-confirms the existence of a covert program.
According to the Israelis, Iran is much further ahead in its nuclear efforts than previously believed, and could be within one year of having an atomic bomb. By comparison, some U.S. observers believe Iran is three to six years away from nuclear weapons, and at least one official estimate puts the timetable at closer to a decade.
Dagan's message to the U.S. was apparently terse and serious: here's what we know about the Iranian program, and we're prepared to act if you don't. If media reports are accurate, the reaction from American officials reflected concern, but not panic. According to the Times, the U.S. reportedly plans to raise the issue at the G8 Summit in July, if the UNSC fails to act in the interim. That approach suggests that Washington still favors the diplomatic track, and believes it has time for more negotiation before military action might be necessary. It's a gamble that appears increasingly uncomfortable for the new Israeli government.
In many respects, the policy question boils down to which side has the better intelligence. In terms of technical capabilities, the U.S. has the edge, but Israeli HUMINT is without peer in the Middle East. And while Tel Aviv is not above using intelligence to advance its particular point of view, but I don't believe their claims about covert Iranian nuclear facilities are exaggerated or wildly inaccurate. Indeed, at this stage of the game, the existence of covert nuclear sites are almost a given; any realistic estimate of Tehran's program must account for that possibility, both for diplomatic purposes--and potential strike planning. That's the unvarnished, bottom-line message that Mr. Dagan apparently delivered in Washington last week.