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Israel, US postpone missile-defense drill to avoid provoking Iran

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Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

(Read caption) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on Monday. The US and Israel have postponed a major missile-defense drill to avoid provoking Iran.

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The US and Israel have postponed a major missile-defense drill to avoid further aggravating tensions with Iran.

The decision was said to be a joint one, but there appears to be friction between the two allies on the best overall strategy on curtailing the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The Israeli state and many US politicians say they believe Iran is working on a nuclear bomb, though US intelligence estimates say such work is not ongoing.

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Israeli officials are publicly leaning on President Obama to get tougher with Tehran, with some suggesting that election-year considerations are making him too cautious. The US, meanwhile, is struggling to dissuade Israel from taking unilateral action against Iran without coming across as being unsupportive, and potentially fueling Israeli determination to act preemptively.

The plans to test the US and Israel's air defense systems – for rockets and missiles from as far away as Iran – had been seen as a strong expression of the Obama administration's commitment to Israeli security. Last month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the drill "exemplified unprecedented levels of defense cooperation between the two countries meant to back up Washington's 'unshakable' commitment to Israel's security."

According to unnamed Israeli defense officials cited by the Associated Press, the drill will now be rescheduled for the second half of 2012, but at least one other report suggested it had been canceled altogether.

The announcement that the drill would not happen as scheduled came the day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's deputy, Moshe Yaalon, told Israeli Radio that President Obama's "election-year considerations" were preventing his administration from taking a tough stance on Iran, contrasting US decisions with Europe's rapid moves, Reuters reports.

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel's vice prime minister, contrasted the administration's posture to that of France and Britain, which he said "are taking a very firm stand and understand sanctions must be imposed immediately".

"In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution, by a majority of 100-to-one, to impose these sanctions, and in the US administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising this year, out of election-year considerations," Ya’alon told Israel Radio. "In that regard, this is certainly a disappointment, for now."

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Mr. Netanyahu said in a closed meeting Sunday that current sanctions on Iran have not been effective enough, the Washington Post reports, citing an unnamed Israeli who attended the meeting.

According to a New York Times report yesterday, the recent "hardening" of sanctions on Iran has backed Obama into a corner as he heads into his reelection campaign:

In late June, when the campaign is in full swing, Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to take action against countries, including some staunch allies, if they continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank.

After fierce lobbying by the White House, which opposed this hardening in the sanctions that have been its main tool in pressuring Tehran, Congress agreed to modify the legislation to give Mr. Obama leeway to delay action if he concludes the clampdown would disrupt the oil market. He may also invoke a waiver to exempt any country from sanctions based on national security considerations.

But using either of those escape hatches could open the president to charges that he is weak on Iran, which is viewed by Western powers as determined to achieve a nuclear weapons capability and which has drawn a tough response from Europe as well.

A divergence in the US and Israeli strategies on Iran was evident in the governments' differing responses to last week's assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist. While high-level US officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly denied any US involvement in the attack, Israel was more ambiguous – and many Israeli analysts said they believed Israel's Mossad was behind the attack, if only as part of a joint operation, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz reports that the drill, which has been in the works for two years, would have been the largest missile defense drill ever for both the US and Israel. Its cancellation leaves Iran wondering what the two countries are planning instead. Mr. Katz speculates that Israel could be planning something unilaterally – or at least seeking to imply it is as "another step in the 'hold me back' strategy."

Either way, the cancellation is convenient for both Israel and the US, which are currently focused on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. As reported in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, the US is also bolstering defenses around facilities in the Middle East. Deploying missile defense systems in Israel could take away from those defenses.

Like almost everything in the Middle East these days, the missile defense drill was meant to send a message, mainly that the US has Israel’s back. That is likely still the case. The Iranians are now left to wonder about the significance.

Reuters reports that US Joint Chief of Staffs Chairman General Martin Dempsey is scheduled to make his first visit to Israel on Thursday, when Israel media predicts he will "seek to persuade his hosts not to 'surprise' the United States on Iran." Bloomberg reports that Mr. Panetta said earlier this month that "continued pressure, not talk of air strikes, is the best way to forestall Iran's nuclear program."

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