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Obama and the Iranian Nuclear Threat

In an excerpt from Ehud Barak’s ‘My Country, My Life,’ the former defense minister discloses the debate over Israel’s attack plan, and a fateful conversation with President Barack Obama

Ehud Barak
May 10, 2018
Photo: Avi Hayon/MFA via Getty Images
Barack Obama is briefed by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the strategic balance of power in the Middle East as they sit in an Israeli Air Force helicopter before taking off for the southern town of Sderot on July 23, 2008 from a helipad in Jerusalem.Photo: Avi Hayon/MFA via Getty Images
Photo: Avi Hayon/MFA via Getty Images
Barack Obama is briefed by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the strategic balance of power in the Middle East as they sit in an Israeli Air Force helicopter before taking off for the southern town of Sderot on July 23, 2008 from a helipad in Jerusalem.Photo: Avi Hayon/MFA via Getty Images
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The Iranians were producing more and more yellowcake, building more advanced centrifuges, accumulating more low-enriched uranium. They were getting better at hiding and protecting the network of facilities being used to try to produce a nuclear weapon. But in the early months of Bibi’s prime ministership, the question wasn’t whether to take military action against Iran—something I knew, from Bob Gates and others, that the Obama administration viewed no more favorably than George W. Bush. It was to ensure that we actually had the military capacity to strike before the Iranians entered their “zone of immunity”—the point at which the amount of damage we could do, and the delay we could cause, to their nuclear program would be too negligible to be worth the operational, political, and diplomatic risks from such an attack.

I began working, both with the Kirya and the engineers and technological experts in our military industries, to ensure we had a military option: the required means and munitions, and a workable plan for an attack if we decided to launch one. It wasn’t until mid-2010, a year into Bibi’s government, that I was confident we’d reached that point. Our experts estimated that if we struck now, we could set back the Iranian nuclear efforts by several years. Given the Iranians’ knowledge that we could always attack again, that meant we might very well succeed in ending their nuclear program altogether.

It was then that the question became whether we should launch a strike. Answering it was like a contest of three-dimensional chess, involving both an internal debate among Israel’s political and military leadership and discussions with the Obama administration, whose priority was to negotiate a halt to Iran’s nuclear program. On all major security decisions in Israel, two ministers always mattered most: the prime minister and defense minister. Neither Bibi nor I doubted we had to be ready to strike if that proved necessary. Nor did Foreign Minister Lieberman. Even for us, it was an option to be considered only when all other ways to rein in the Iranians had failed. We agreed on two other preconditions as well. First, we would need to secure international legitimacy, most of all from the Americans, for a clear act of self-defense. Second, we’d have to demonstrate a compelling urgency to act when we did, with the approach of an Iranian “zone of immunity” against Israeli military action.

Ideally, we hoped the U.S.-led campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure would get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, as had happened with Libya. Or, as in South Africa, that a change in nuclear policy might come from a change in regime. Yet we couldn’t count on either. And there was no doubt in our minds that a nuclear Iran represented a hugely serious threat. If the Shi’ite Muslim regime in Iran did get a nuclear weapon, Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as well, would inevitably try to go nuclear, dramatically unsettling the regional security picture. Neither these other states nor Israel could assume that Iran was developing a bomb as a mere act of deterrence.

Especially in a crisis threatening the survival of the ayatollahs’ rule, Iran might use the weapons it was developing or even send a nuclear device in a container smuggled on board a commercial vessel docking in one of Israel’s ports.

While few in Israel disputed the seriousness of the threat, a number of top political and military figures had deep misgivings about military action. Given the need for secrecy, most of our discussions took place within the Group of Eight, often also including the chief of staff and other generals from the Kirya. Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, a minister without portfolio, were opposed to an Israeli attack from the start. They feared it could have unpredictable and possibly dire implications for the region, as well as for our relations with the wider world. Dan raised a further concern: that an Israeli attack might intensify Iran’s effort to get a nuclear bomb, only now with political cover, because it would argue it was acting in self-defense. In fact, regularly updated reports we were receiving from our intelligence experts suggested that if we did attack, some Iranian retaliation was inevitable. But the options would be limited. They would probably involve, at worst, a period of escalated use of two familiar weapons: terror operations abroad and missile attacks by its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon.

Those ministers who opposed a strike argued that we should rely on American economic and political pressure to deal with the threat. And if that failed, on American military action.

In November 2010, the internal debate came to a head at a meeting involving the Group of Eight as well as the chief of staff, the head of military intelligence, and the commander of the air force. We convened in a Mossad facility near Tel Aviv. The meeting began with a presentation by the generals of our attack plan. There was still a core of ministers opposed, led by Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. But the confidence and detail with which the plan was laid out, and the fact that Bibi, Lieberman, and I were in favor of being prepared to act, gave me the sense that a majority would back military action if it were deemed necessary. The proviso would be the need for the chief of staff, and ideally the heads of military intelligence and Mossad, to sign off on the operational viability of the plan.

That proviso soon ended any prospect of an Israeli attack, at least for now. Bibi, Lieberman, and I withdrew into a side room to talk with the chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, as well as the heads of military intelligence, the Mossad, and Shin Bet. We emphasized that no final decision on whether to attack had been taken. That would require a further meeting with the Group of Eight, and then the full cabinet. But we asked each of them for their views on the operation. We knew they had political reservations along the lines of those voiced by Dan Meridor. On an issue of this magnitude, it was accepted practice that military and intelligence commanders could weigh in on the political implications. But their formal role was operational and professional. Ashkenazi and the other generals conceded that in every area—planning, materiel, training, and intelligence—our attack plan was far ahead of where it had been a year earlier. Yet Ashkenazi, in particular, concluded that the preparations had not yet “crossed the threshold of operational capability.”

This left me fuming inside. I respected the considered opposition of ministers like Dan or Benny Begin, and had no problem with the chief of staff or other generals expressing concerns about the political or geostrategic implications of an Israeli attack, even though our intelligence assessments suggested these were almost certainly unfounded. What I found astonishing was Ashkenazi’s suggestion that the “operational threshold” had not been crossed. Yes, this would be a demanding mission. It was not without risks—no operation was. But having followed every stage and detail of the preparations—and as a former chief of staff and intelligence chief myself—I believed it was simply wrong on a professional level to say that we lacked the capacity, and a workable plan, for a military strike if the order was given.

Our discussions continued in the months ahead alongside a further refinement and strengthening of the attack plan. So did Iran’s progress toward its “zone of immunity,” which we now believed would begin late in 2012, a couple of years away. As that point drew ever closer, we faced the need to decide finally whether military action was possible and necessary.

The delay in reaching that point, however, had serious implications for my role as Labor leader. Since the negotiations with the Palestinians were stuck in neutral, I was under pressure from many within Labor to pull out of Bibi’s government. What on earth was the point of staying? they asked. All I was doing, from their perspective, was giving Bibi political cover for abandoning any serious effort to get a peace agreement. That argument was entirely reasonable. My frustration was that, due to the need for military secrecy, I could not explain my real reason for believing we needed to stay in the government: the fact that we were at a critical juncture in deciding whether to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program. To a mix of consternation and anger among many Labor colleagues, I ended up taking what seemed to me the only realistic option. In January 2011, I left the Labor Party. With three other of our ministers in the government—who were, of course, aware of the ongoing Iran discussions—I set up a new “centrist, Zionist” party called Ha’Atzmaut, or Independence. We remained in Bibi’s government.


For the “international legitimacy” an Israeli attack required, we had to secure from the Americans at least their understanding that we might feel it necessary to act, a goal not helped by steadily rising tensions between the Obama administration and Bibi. Ever since the initial pressure for a settlement freeze, right-wing politicians and commentators, and Bibi himself, had taken to portraying President Obama as fundamentally unsympathetic to Israel. Then, after the Republicans’ victory in the midterm congressional elections in November 2010, Bibi went a step further, deepening his already-close ties with Republican congressmen and senators and with their major financial patrons. This overt meddling in the internal politics of our closest ally was not just a breach of long-standing tradition, but of common sense. Members of the administration began privately calling Bibi “the Republican senator from Rehavia”—a reference to the Jerusalem neighborhood where the prime minister’s official residence was located.

Yet in spite of this, my main contacts in the administration—first Bob Gates and then his successor as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta—never wavered from their commitment to the principle that Israel needed to retain our “qualitative military edge” over any combination of threats we might face, nor to the $3 billion package of annual U.S. aid that underpinned it. We were even able to agree on additional U.S. backing for our increasingly effective range of anti-missile systems: the Arrow, against long-range ballistic missiles, developed in coordination with the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon; “David’s Sling,” to target enemy forces’ midrange missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft; and our new Iron Dome system, integrating sophisticated Israeli radar and guidance technology and designed to deal with the missile threat from Hezbollah on our northern border and Hamas in Gaza. It had not yet been used in battle, but from test firings, we were confident it could destroy incoming rockets with nearly 90 percent success.

By late 2011, the issue of Iran had taken on much greater urgency. There was still no sign the American-led diplomatic efforts were succeeding in removing the nuclear threat. As for an American military strike, though the president intermittently declared that “all options” remained on the table, I knew from senior administration members that it was extremely unlikely to happen. Iran, meanwhile, had been producing thousands more centrifuges, more uranium, and building heavier protection around its key sites. The “zone of immunity” was now closer than in 2010.

By now, most of the key players in Israel agreed we had to be prepared to take military action if there was no alternative way to rein in the Iranians. Along with Bibi, Lieberman, and me, Benny Gantz, Ashkenazi’s successor as chief of staff, had signed off on the attack plan. The strike force we were assembling was also better equipped, trained, and prepared to mount a complex—and, very likely, successful—military operation. The damage to Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be considerably less than if we had acted earlier. But our intelligence analysts still estimated we could deal a meaningful setback to the Iranians’ program.

‘Mr. President … there are no future contracts in statesmanship. There’s no way that you, or any leader, can commit yourself to what will happen in a year or two.’ —Ehud Barak to Barack Obama, discussing Iran’s nuclear threat, 2012

Yet there were still voices of opposition within the inner Group of Eight: not just Dan Meridor and Benny Begin but the minister for strategic affairs, Boogie Ya’alon, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. That meant we could not yet count on passing a resolution to go ahead with the operation. There was also a further, more immediate problem as we approached the turn of the year. A major joint military exercise with the Americans, agreed on two years earlier, was due to take place in Israel in April 2012. It would include Patriot missile batteries, naval vessels, and thousands of uniformed U.S. personnel. The focus, of all things, was on defense against a missile attack from Iran. In late 2011, I’d contacted Leon Panetta to see whether we could delay it. Though I didn’t say why, I assumed he understood that we were at least considering military action. He also realized that if we did launch an attack, it was in the Americans’ own interest for their troops to be as far away from Israel as possible. We agreed to reschedule the exercise for October 2012. That meant that if we decided to attack, we’d have until well into September, when significant numbers of U.S. troops would begin to arrive.

As we weighed our final decision, I held a series of high-level meetings in Washington: with Panetta, national security adviser Tom Donilon, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama himself. Though not explicitly saying we were contemplating an attack, I explained the reasons we believed Israel’s fundamental security interests might make it necessary. The message from all of the Americans I met was that the administration shared our basic goal: to prevent, or at least seriously impair, Iran’s drive to get a nuclear bomb. But they continued to believe that nonmilitary pressure was the best way to achieve that.

The Americans knew we were skeptical that the nonmilitary route would work, and that we were deeply worried about the implications of failing to stop Iran’s nuclear efforts. I discussed our thinking—and, in general terms, our plans—with Panetta. I assumed that he probably had a pretty good idea of the broad contours of what we were contemplating, since U.S. radar systems and electronic intercepts had the capacity to record the volume and nature of air force exercises we’d been conducting over recent months. Leon and I knew each other well, having first met when he was President Clinton’s White House chief of staff and then when he was made head of the CIA at the start of the Obama administration. In one of our early meetings at CIA headquarters in Langley, there had been a small bunch of grapes on his desk, and I plucked a few and popped them into my mouth with obvious enjoyment. Now, at the Pentagon, he had a big bowlful ready whenever we met. The fact that he opposed an Israeli military operation made him no less of a pleasure to deal with. He was calm and even-tempered. He had an encyclopedic grasp of issues of defense, intelligence, budgets, and policy. He was a proud, patriotic American. He was also always rock-solid on America’s commitment to Israel’s security. It’s worth remembering that, in spite of our insistence from 1948 onward that we would never ask others to do our fighting for us, even as Leon and I were meeting, U.S. radar operators were working around the clock to provide us with early warning against any incoming Iranian missiles. Patriot batteries were routinely ready to deploy in Israel on short notice in case of an attack. Aegis naval vessels were also usually in the Mediterranean and were able to reinforce Israel’s Arrow missile defense system with sea-launched weapons.

Panetta made no secret of the fact he didn’t want us to launch a military strike, which would undo the many months of intensive work the Americans had devoted to building international political and economic pressure on the Iranians. He urged me to “think twice, three times,” before going down that road. But he recognized that Israel would be affected far more dramatically by a nuclear Iran. “It’s your conflict. It’s your neighborhood,” he said. At one point, he asked me outright: “If you do decide to attack the Iranian facilities, when will we know?”

I told him that, realistically, we couldn’t give him more than a few hours’ notice. But I did recognize our responsibility not to leave the Americans in the dark. They were a key ally, and their personnel might be at risk from any Iranian retaliation. “We know your command-post deployment and the communications protocols with your forces,” I told him. “We’ll make sure you have enough time to tell your people. We won’t endanger a single American life, any of your personnel.”

My most important meeting was with the president. Though I knew him less well than I did Panetta, we had met on a number of occasions. The first time was when he was still Senator Obama, on a visit to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign. As defense minister, I escorted him to Sderot, the town in southern Israel bearing the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. Back in Jerusalem, we spent a half hour talking at a corner table in the lobby of the King David Hotel—about Iran. I argued that a nuclear Iran was a challenge not only for Israel and the Middle East, but America, too. I urged him, if elected, to convene an early meeting including operational specialists and security experts on what the Iranians were seeking to do and what could be done to stop them—by diplomatic means or, if necessary, by force. Also, what the Iranians could, or more relevantly could not, do in response to an American or an Israeli attack, since our intelligence assessments suggested their options for retaliation would be fairly limited. Obama struck me from that first meeting as coolheaded, independent-minded, highly intelligent, and intensely cerebral. Though we didn’t go into the details of the Iranian nuclear threat, he talked at length about the implications for the region, and about broader Middle Eastern security challenges. He displayed a grasp of the cultural and political nuances of an increasingly diverse and complex world that was more impressive than many of the other American political or military leaders I’d met.

When he and I now returned to the issue of Iran, in the White House, he had an undeniable command of the details of Iran’s nuclear program, and of the American military options, should he choose to use them. He opened by summarizing the U.S. position. He emphasized that he, too, was determined to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The difference, he said, was that we seemed to feel an urgent need to reach a decision on military action. In Obama’s view, such a move would be both premature and potentially harmful to the coalition he’d helped to assemble to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran.

Maybe you had to be an Israeli to truly understand our urgency. In the early years of the state, the explanation we gave for our preoccupation with security—our near obsession, as some non-Israelis saw it—was that we were surrounded by Arab countries pledged not just to defeat us, but eliminate us from the map. While Egypt or Syria, Jordan or Iraq could afford to lose an Arab-Israeli war, Israel’s first defeat would be its last. That picture had changed dramatically over the decades. We no longer had to worry about the prospect of losing a war. The “qualitative military edge” we possessed over all enemy armies in the region ensured that. As Israel’s chief of staff, prime minister, and now defense minister, I had made it a major priority to safeguard that advantage, not just through our alliance with the United States but with the remarkable domestic resources we possessed in advanced technology, manufacturing, design, and invention. But the new-order challenge represented by Iran was not just theoretical or academic: A nuclear Iran would almost certainly lead to a nuclear Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, introducing a whole new order of instability and danger to the region. Beyond that, only the most naïve observer would exclude the possibility that if the Iranians did get a nuclear weapon, circumstances might arise, however remote they now might seem, in which they might use it.

I was not about to lecture President Obama on this. While Bibi liked to portray him variously as weak, naïve, or tone-deaf to the interests and security of Israel, I knew he was none of these things. Yet I did, in a deliberately nondidactic way, raise the issue of our different perspectives on the Iranians’ getting nuclear arms. “You see it in the context of the whole world,” I told the president. “If Iran, in spite of all our efforts, gets a nuclear weapon, yes, it will be bad. But for you, it’s just one more nuclear state. It won’t dramatically change the situation for America. For us, it can evolve over time into a real, existential threat.”

He agreed that we inevitably looked at the situation differently. But after pausing a few seconds, he said, “Ehud, think of it this way. You get to school in the morning and there’s this big, nasty bully. You can take him on, maybe give him a black eye. But you have a bigger, stronger friend, who can knock him out cold. The only problem is that your friend won’t be there until the afternoon.”

I would have liked nothing more than to wait for our “bigger, stronger” friend, especially since I knew through my contacts in the American military and intelligence establishment how much more effective an American attack would be. During the first couple of years that Israel worked on acquiring the capability for a military strike against Iran, the Americans had been no more ready than we were. They had the tanker aircraft and the heavy bombs, but their plan was so obviously prone to lead to a wider conflict that it would never have received the go-ahead from President Obama, or probably any president. I used to joke with colleagues in the Pentagon that while Israel’s idea of a “surgical operation” was the equivalent of a scalpel, they seemed to favor a chisel and a 10-pound hammer. By the time I met the president in 2012, that had changed. Under Gates and Panetta, an intensive research-and-development effort and enormously improved planning and testing had yielded results. The Americans now had high-precision heavy munitions we couldn’t dream of, and stealth air-attack capabilities we also lacked. Our assessment was that they had the operational capability to launch an attack that, within a period of hours, could push the Iranian nuclear program back by years, and that, even if the Iranians knew the strike was coming, they’d be powerless to stop.

“Our problem, Mr. President,” I said, “is that we can’t be sure our friend will show up in the schoolyard. Since Iran is already very nearly in a zone of immunity against an Israeli attack, we can’t afford to wait until the afternoon. By then, with our capabilities, we won’t even be able to give the bully a black eye.” I said I trusted what he’d just told me. “I’m sure it genuinely reflects your intentions now. But there are no future contracts in statesmanship. There’s no way that you, or any leader, can commit yourself to what will happen in a year or two. When the moment of decision arrives, nothing will be able to free you from the responsibility to look at the situation as it is then, with American interests in mind.”

He accepted the point but reiterated his view that “kinetic action”—U.S. security-speak for a military strike—would not only remove his ability to exhaust the nonmilitary alternatives. He said it wouldn’t even be in Israel’s interests, either. “We hear that even people high up in your military, in military intelligence and the Mossad, are against it.”

I couldn’t deny that. “We highly respect our top people in the military, and in intelligence. We make a point of listening to them before taking action,” I said. “But here’s the difference. When they look up, they see Netanyahu, or me. When Bibi and I look up, we see heaven. Whoever is up there, we clearly can’t go to Him for advice. We are responsible for Israel’s security.”

The President smiled, but brought the discussion back down to earth. When he again urged us to consider the American position in any decision, I replied, “Mr. President, I feel compelled to tell you frankly how I see the situation. We highly appreciate, and are grateful, that America supports Israel in so many ways. I believe we’re doing our best to support American interests in the Middle East as well. But when it comes to issues critical for the security and future of Israel, and in a way for the future of the Jewish people, we can’t afford to delegate responsibility even to our best friend and ally. When we face situations, we have to decide on the basis of our own sovereign responsibility, and act on our decisions. I would expect the United States, and you as its president, to respect that position.” He did not seem especially happy with what I’d said. But he showed no anger. Though we differed, it was clear he understood and respected our position. In any case, I believed it was important to convey to him honestly, face-to-face, where Israel stood on Iran. Or at least where I stood.

From My Country, My Life by Ehud Barak. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

Ehud Barak served as Israeli Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001, and the as the country’s armed forces Chief of Staff. He was Minister of Defense in the governments of Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.