Report: Israel breached Iran airspace in 2012 in what US thought was dry run for strike

Wall Street Journal traces collapse of trust between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran, says US refused to sell materiel for strike, hid secret Tehran talks but Israel wasn’t fooled

US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 3, 2014. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 3, 2014. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Israel violated Iranian airspace in 2012 in what was perceived by the US as a dry run for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, even as American officials concealed secret talks with Tehran, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

The newspaper says that the US “closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret communications” during 2012, fearing that the Jewish state was planning an attack on the Fordow nuclear site.

The report paints an image of two long-term allies increasingly suspicious of each other, who kept their own secrets and engaged in covert activities.

According to the report, “[n]erves frayed at the White House” when the US discovered Israeli air activity over Iran, and Washington dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and also prepared attack aircraft, in case, as one senior American official told the Journal, “all hell broke loose.”

As the Obama administration held its backdoor talks with Iran in Oman, US intelligence was monitoring Israeli communications to ensure that Jerusalem was unaware of the meetings, the newspaper said. But in a September 2013 encounter at the White House, Yaakov Amidror, then national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, revealed to American counterpart Susan Rice that Israel had identified unmarked US government airplanes in Muscat where the covert talks were being held.

Rice had called Amidror to the White House to inform him that US President Barack Obama was at that time holding a historic phone call with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.

Outgoing national security adviser Yaakov Amidror with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a farewell ceremony in Amidror's honor, on November 3, 2013. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Outgoing national security adviser Yaakov Amidror with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a farewell ceremony in Amidror’s honor, on November 3, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

At the same time, relations between the countries’ leaders had begun to deteriorate. Obama and Netanyahu — who, before their respective election wins, were of one mind on how to deal with Iran — found themselves further and further apart by 2009, once they had both taken office. Netanyahu had been told by Republican lawmakers that Obama was “pro-Arab,” the WSJ said, quoting Israeli officials. Those conversations had subsequently reached the White House.

As a result, the newspaper said, the president took steps to reassure Israel, including an expansion of existing joint covert operations against Iran and increased cooperation between the CIA and the Mossad. But the Americans were reluctant to approve some of Israel’s more drastic plans, such as bringing down the Iranian financial system or all-out regime change.

US-Israel ties began to significantly deteriorate following a May 2009 meeting between the two leaders at the White House, after which Netanyahu began briefing reporters immediately, without first coordinating with the US administration.

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran’s Fordow uranium enrichment facility. (AP/DigitalGlobe)

Netanyahu’s determination to carry out a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities also caused anxiety at the White House, the report said. An Israeli plan to attack the heavily fortified Fordow enrichment facility from the inside was deemed to be a “suicide mission” by the US, which refused to sell the Jewish state the materiel it felt was needed to carry out the strike.

The Israelis “briefed the U.S. on an attack plan: Cargo planes would land in Iran with Israeli commandos on board who would ‘blow the doors, and go in through the porch entrance’ of Fordow, a senior U.S. official said,” according to the Journal. “The Israelis planned to sabotage the nuclear facility from inside. Pentagon officials thought it was a suicide mission. They pressed the Israelis to give the U.S. advance warning. The Israelis were noncommittal.”

The US tried to reassure Israel on the issue, persuading the Jewish state to engage in increased covert activity against Iran, and Obama even committed publicly to a military strike should negotiations fail. Yet this did not appear to comfort Netanyahu, and in 2012 US intelligence reported on “a flurry of meetings” between the prime minister and his senior defense officials.

Israeli officials, said the Journal, sought US “military hardware useful for a strike” in summer 2012. “At the top of the list were V-22 Ospreys, aircraft that take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes… The Israelis also sounded out officials about obtaining the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the U.S. military’s 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb, which was designed to destroy Fordow.” According to Gary Samore, Obama’s White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, the administration made plain it considered this “a big mistake.” Reported the Journal, “White House officials decided not to provide the equipment.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at United Nations headquarters Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (AP/Craig Ruttle)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left), meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at UN headquarters on September 26, 2015. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

This led the US to believe that Israel was serious about striking Iran, the Journal said, and the Obama administration stepped up its surveillance of Israeli air activity. This surveillance showed the US that Israel was practicing “strike missions” and endeavoring to work out how to enter Iranian airspace undetected.

The fractured nature of the intel also caused the US to believe — mistakenly, the Journal said — that Israel had already carried out a “dry run” for an attack on Iran, and motivated the decision to keep Jerusalem in the dark about the secret negotiations. It also convinced the US that a diplomatic solution was urgently needed.

American officials are now vowing “to work closely with their Israeli counterparts to monitor Iran’s compliance with the international agreement,” The Journal report concluded. “But it is unclear how the White House will respond to any covert Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program, which current and former Israeli officials said were imperative to safeguard their country. One clause in the agreement says the major powers will help the Iranians secure their facilities against sabotage. State Department officials said the clause wouldn’t protect Iranian nuclear sites from Israel.”

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