The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran

Regardless of the outcome of the election, the landscape of the current Iran crisis could change quickly, and Trump even said during the recent Group of 7 summit that he might meet in the coming weeks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. That prospect has set off alarms in Israel, where some officials raise fears in private that the American president in whom they had invested so much hope has gone wobbly. But Netanyahu, at least publicly, says he isn’t worried. In an interview in August in his office in Jerusalem, he acknowledged the possibility that Trump, like Obama before him, might try to avoid a war and instead attempt to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program.

“But this time,” Netanyahu said, “we will have far greater ability to exert influence.”

The first public revelation about a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in Iran came in the summer of 2002, as America was preparing for war with Iraq. Western intelligence services had found that scientists at a nuclear facility near Natanz, in north-central Iran, had begun an effort to enrich uranium ore. A dossier of these findings leaked to a group affiliated with the M.E.K., which went public with the information at a news conference in Washington. The Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, chose to pursue a path of negotiation with Iran, coupled with sanctions. For many Israeli officials, the revelation reinforced a conclusion that they had already drawn: The United States was making war on the wrong country.

The Israeli leadership grew even more concerned in 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran. Ahmadinejad immediately made known his views about Israel, unleashing fiery rhetoric calling for the end to the nation and calling the Nazi extermination of Jews a myth. He increased support for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah — and, American and Israeli analysts agreed, he also began to accelerate the nation’s nuclear program. In a nation built by survivors of the Holocaust, the moves confirmed for many that Iran presented an existential threat.

Israel’s leadership at that time was going through an uncertain moment. In January 2006, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, suffered a stroke that left him in a vegetative state. A deputy, Ehud Olmert, stepping up to replace him, gave a free hand and endless resources to the clandestine campaign that the Mossad, Israel’s civilian intelligence agency, was running to stop, or at least delay, the Iranian nuclear project. In 2007, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, became Olmert’s defense minister and issued a written order to the Israeli military’s general staff to develop plans for a large-scale attack on Iran. But Olmert thought that many were exaggerating the immediacy of the Iran threat. His own position, he recalls now, “was that it was not Israel that should lead a military operation, even with the knowledge that Iran might indeed succeed in getting a bomb. Just as Pakistan had the bomb and nothing happened, Israel could also accept and survive Iran having the bomb.”

Netanyahu, then in the leadership of the conservative Likud party, took a starkly different position. He had gone to high school and college in the United States, earning a business degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working at the Boston Consulting Group, where he became friends with the future Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. During his first term as prime minister — from 1996 to 1999 — he warned a joint session of Congress that only the United States could prevent the “catastrophic consequences” of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Now the Likud leader was once again enlisting Israel’s closest ally into what Uzi Arad, one of his former top advisers, describes as “a personal crusade against the Iranian threat.” Speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, in Washington in 2007, Netanyahu demanded more sanctions on Iran. He also met with Dick Cheney, then the vice president, and, according to Arad, warned that if the West failed to present a credible threat of military action, Iran would surely get the bomb.

In Cheney, Netanyahu had found the right audience. The Pentagon’s military and civilian leadership had little appetite for another war of pre-emption, and by then neither did the president. But Cheney, like Bolton, had long taken a more expansive view, and he continued to argue for military action against Iran well into George W. Bush’s second term.