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Panetta Stalls for Time on Iran

CIA director Leon Panetta had this exchange with Jake Tapper on This Week:

TAPPER: Do you think these latest sanctions will dissuade the Iranians from trying to enrich uranium?

PANETTA: I think the sanctions will have some impact. You know, the fact that we had Russia and China agree to that, that there is at least strong international opinion that Iran is on the wrong track, that’s important. Those sanctions will have some impact. The sanctions that were passed by the Congress this last week will have some additional impact. It could help weaken the regime. It could create some serious economic problems. Will it deter them from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not.

TAPPER: The 2007 national intelligence estimate said all of Iran’s work on nuclear weapons ended in 2003. You don’t still believe that, do you?

PANETTA: I think they continue to develop their know-how. They continue to develop their nuclear capability.

TAPPER: Including weaponization?

PANETTA: I think they continue to work on designs in that area. There is a continuing debate right now as to whether or nor they ought to proceed with the bomb. But they clearly are developing their nuclear capability, and that raises concerns. It raises concerns about, you know, just exactly what are their intentions, and where they intend to go. I mean, we think they have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons. They do have to enrich it, fully, in order to get there. And we would estimate that if they made that decision, it would probably take a year to get there, probably another year to develop the kind of weapon delivery system in order to make that viable.

But having said that, you know, the president and the international community has said to Iran, you’ve got to wake up, you’ve got to join the family of nations, you’ve got to abide by international law. That’s in the best interests of Iran. It’s in the best interests of the Iranian people.

After Panetta declined to say whether the Iranians’ “technical troubles in their nuclear program” was the result of our sabotage (we certainly hope this is the case), there was this final discussion:

TAPPER: How likely do you think it is that Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next two years?

PANETTA: I think, you know, Israel obviously is very concerned, as is the entire world, about what’s happening in Iran. And they in particular because they’re in that region in the world, have a particular concern about their security. At the same time, I think, you know, on an intelligence basis, we continue to share intelligence as to what exactly is Iran’s capacity. I think they feel more strongly that Iran has already made the decision to proceed with the bomb. But at the same time, I think they know that sanctions will have an impact, they know that if we continue to push Iran from a diplomatic point of view, that we can have some impact, and I think they’re willing to give us the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically and culturally and politically as opposed to changing them militarily.

The interview is, to put it mildly, distressing. Americans should understand that it is not a question of whether the Iranians have enough material for a bomb — but how to get what they already have out of their hands. (So what were we doing last year offering to let them ship an unverifiable amount of their enriched uranium out of the country?) As Panetta explained, before Obama leaves office, Iran will probably have figured out how to boost the level of uranium enrichment and how to weaponize the material.

Moreover, the administration, at the risk of appearing ludicrously naive, is not willing to say what everyone now knows to be true: the 2007 NIE was rubbish. (The 2007 NIE was supposed to be modified or dispensed with last December, but the intelligence agencies continue to drag out the process.) As long as the NIE remains on the books, the administration is wedded to ambiguity on the topic, and therefore must in essence characterize the Israelis’ assessment as more alarmist than our own.

And finally, Panetta lets on that the Israelis are willing to give us some time to allow sanctions to work, but neither he nor the Israelis, we presume, seem all that confident they will work. “Some impact” doesn’t really provide comfort that the mullahs will give up on their nuclear ambitions.

All this is designed, no doubt, to forestall demands for decisive (i.e., military) action on our part and to keep Israel in a holding pattern. If we conceded that the Iranians — of course — are seeking nuclear weapons, have the material they need (once they are able to enrich the material further and weaponize it) to threaten its neighbors with annihilation, and that sanctions are too little, too late, why then Obama might be expected to do something about the greatest threat to our and our allies’ security in a generation. And that is a responsibility our president is unwilling to bear at present.

The administration, the Congress, and American Jewish groups continue the dance — pretending but not believing (unless Jewish leaders are entirely out to lunch) that Obama has a plan and the will to prevent the “unacceptable” (a nuclear-armed Iran). The Israelis meanwhile are left to consider: just how long do they dare wait before acting on their own to eliminate (or at least set back) the threat of nuclear attack on the Jewish state?

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