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War Jitters Continue on Iran Nuclear Issue, in Shadow of Uprisings in Arab Capitals

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Seeing that 60 Minutes decided to re-run (tonight) its interview with the recently retired Mossad spymaster -- in which Meir Dagan declares that it would be "reckless and irresponsible" for Israel to bomb Iran unilaterally -- we have just checked on where everyone stands, six months after the Dagan interview was originally on CBS.

Surprisingly little has changed.

  • The Obama administration continues to insist that there is at least another year before anyone has to bomb Iran to stop the construction of a nuclear weapon.
  • Dagan, meantime, continues to side with President Barack Obama rather than Netanyahu on this point.

Dagan is making it clear, in private conversations, that his opinions have not changed since his first public appearance 20 months ago. In his final weeks as Mossad director, a job he held from 2002 to 2010, Dagan summoned a select group of Israeli journalists to the spy agency's headquarters north of Tel Aviv. The get-together was approved by Netanyahu, as the prime minister's press spokesman handled the invitations.

Yet Dagan surprisingly broke with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that day. The Mossad director urged his country's leaders to be more cautious and to use military force only when "the sword is at Israel's throat." After retiring, he spoke to CBS and taunted Israelis who believe he is committing treason by speaking out. Dagan smilingly said he would enjoy being put on trial.

On a far more serious level, Dagan still believes that it would be folly for Israel to act unilaterally now and attack Iran. That means he still believes that international pressure such as tough sanctions -- plus sabotage and other covert action done in concert with the United States -- can be effective in slowing down the Iranians.

Dagan has also stated his hope that economic deterioration inside Iran will lead to unrest. He may even be praying, at this Jewish New Year time, that the Islamic regime in Tehran will get bogged down in divisive domestic politics, increasingly vociferous opposition, and perhaps even powerful unrest in the streets.

While dabbling in business and engaging in his hobby of painting, Dagan seems to have his eye on a possible political career. He certainly remains a fierce warrior at age 67, despite his old war injuries and indications from friends of some health problems.

They also report that he is sticking with his position: that there still is time -- "not a lot of time, but still time," as Dagan put it -- to let sanctions and other measures put pressure on Iran. If Israel bombs Iran, as he told 60 Minutes, a "regional war" would be ignited, and Israeli daily life would be hit hard by retaliatory missile strikes and terrorism. That stunning observation continues to be his view.

Yet Netanyahu points out that Iran's centrifuges continue to enrich uranium, almost to bomb-grade potency. He and other Israeli officials point to the latest report by United Nations inspectors at the IAEA showing increasing evidence of a military component to Iran's nuclear work.

What has changed, since Dagan was first on CBS in March, is that America's presidential campaign is nearing its climax. Netanyahu spotlighted a warm and friendly visit by Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, and the prime minister seems to be in a feud with Obama, even on issues as petty as whether Netanyahu requested a meeting with Obama in Washington.

The White House says the president and the prime minister will not be in New York, for the U.N. General Assembly, on the same dates; so no get-together with Netanyahu during his visit to the United States next week has been set. Obama did telephone Netanyahu, for a one-hour chat that must have focused on the president's refusal to set "red lines" that Netanyahu is demanding as a clear don't-cross-this-line ultimatum to Iran.

All of that, plus the frosty relations between the two leaders since 2009, add to the impression that Netanyahu favors Romney over Obama. The Israeli prime minister -- on NBC's Meet the Press today and in an Israeli newspaper interview -- felt compelled to deny that he is trying to intervene in America's presidential election.

Logic suggests that Netanyahu would prefer that Romney win in November, but the Israeli leader -- who spent part of his life living in the U.S. -- is too smart to think that he can affect who is elected or reelected to the White House.

In fact, many Israeli strategic analysts point out that Romney is an unknown, and at a time of crisis in the Middle East they are not enthusiastic about having a foreign policy neophyte in charge in Washington. They feel that Romney may well love Israel and support Netanyahu's policies, but Romney's ability to overcome other views in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community might lead to hesitation and delays in American action next year.

These Israeli analysts, some of whom feel no personal affection toward Obama and what they judge to be his world view, regard the incumbent president as a known entity who surely can take action -- if he chooses to. Israelis are impressed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the decisiveness of America's continuing, violent campaign against al-Qaeda extremists worldwide.

However, this past week's sudden upsurge in anti-American violence in Arab countries is a source of Israeli concern. Washington's responses to the Arab Spring revolutions in countries ranging from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Syria have not been consistent, and their effectiveness was hard to measure -- until this week's rude and lethal reminders that significant segments of the population in newly "free" countries hate America and its values.

On a practical level, unrest in the streets of Arab capitals -- aimed mostly but not only at U.S. embassies -- impacts Israel's strategic calculation about Iran.

Until this new outbreak, the Israelis assumed that Arab countries would generally be supportive -- perhaps silent, but supportive -- if and when Israel and/or the United States bombs Iran's nuclear program. With the obvious rise of Muslim extremism, flexing political muscles by mustering large and angry crowds, Arab governments that want to cling to power are more likely to side with Iran.

Under the banner of Muslim unity, with an unstable region determined to reject intervention by American and Israeli "invaders," Arab leaders may well warn that a military strike on the Iranian nuclear program could lead to World War III.

Sure, it's hyperbole. But big words and loud declarations seem to be the only way, in the Middle East now, to measure whether the region is closer to or farther from an armed conflict that would almost surely draw in America.

Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent in Washington, and Tel-Aviv based Yossi Melman is a commentator for the Israeli news website Walla. Their latest book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.

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