Why did Obama give bunker-buster bombs to Israel?

In late 2009, the Obama administration transferred 55 so-called bunker-buster bombs to Israel. The 5,000-pound bombs conceivably put Israel in the position to attack Iran's buried nuclear facilities--or to target Hezbollah's buried bunkers in Lebanon.

The revelation, first reported by Newsweek's Eli Lake Friday, received independent confirmation via a sensitive U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks last month.

In a November 2009 meeting among senior American and Israeli military and diplomatic officials, "both sides . . . discussed the upcoming delivery of GBU-28 bunker busting bombs to Israel, noting that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations that the USG [U.S. government] is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran," the leaked Nov. 18, 2009 U.S. cable states. ThinkProgress's Ali Ghraib first reported on the U.S. cable.

Israel had earlier requested the deep-penetrating bombs from the Bush administration, Lake reported. But according to Lake's report, Bush had deferred the Israeli request, not wanting to give Israel a "green light" to bomb Iran. (However, another leaked U.S. cable discusses Israeli media reports suggesting the Bush administration transferred an earlier shipment of GBU-28 bombs to Israel, in 2005. "All media continued coverage of the forthcoming arms sale by the U.S. of GBU-28 bombs to Israel," an unclassified April 2005 U.S. diplomatic states.)

American policymakers had--and indeed have--many reasons to be wary of Israel initiating a confrontation with Iran--chief among them the roughly 150,000 American troops the United States currently has deployed on either side of Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other forces and assets assigned to bases in Qatar, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.

So why has the Obama administration seemingly reversed that call? After all, the Obama White House has sought to curtail Iran's nuclear program through diplomatic and economic measures--and the export of 5,000-pound bunker buster bombs to Israel would seem to severely test Israeli patience for that slow and frustrating effort. And, secondly, why is the information emerging now--nearly two years after the administration carried out the deal?

Some policy observers suggest that the U.S. military under Obama was trying to "hug Israel close," in order to increase its feeling of security and thus hopefully stave off the prospect that Israel might launch a surprise strike on Iran on its own, thereby wreaking all sorts of havoc with U.S. military and diplomatic initiatives in the region.

The reported transfer may have been a "gesture" by the Obama White House "to assure the Israelis we love them," one Washington Iran expert who insisted on anonymity told The Envoy via email. (Still, he confessed that he found the ultimate motivation behind the transfer mystifying.)

It's also worth noting that the pending U.S. transfer of the 5,000-lb. bunker buster bombs was discussed at a Nov. 18, 2009 meeting--approximately a week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a ten-month partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank that the Obama administration had sought. But there is no insinuation in the Nov. 18, 2009 cable of any sort of quid pro quo for the bunker buster deal. Rather, it was mentioned in the context of U.S.-Israeli discussions on approaches for dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

As to the timing of the revelation, while some observers have suggested that American officials may have leaked it in order to burnish Obama's pro-Israel credentials as he faces a tough 2012 presidential campaign, Lake himself, in an interview with NPR Saturday, discounted such a political motivation by his initial sources. Lake also said on Twitter that Obama White House officials were not among the U.S. and Israeli sources for his story. (Nevertheless, some Democratic Congressional staffers have eagerly circulated the Lake report, seemingly seeking to beat back the Republican narrative that Obama has not demonstrated sufficient support for the Jewish state.)

The simpler explanation may in this case be the more compelling one: American and Israeli officials initiated the disclosure of the information now to send a potent warning to Iran.

Such a message would be well timed, in view of other recent developments in the Iranian nuclear effort. Last month, Tehran announced that it had started moving nuclear centrifuges to a buried underground facility in Qom. American officials have been concerned that as Iran proceeds with transferring its enrichment program from its current Natanz facility to the underground Qom facility, Israel might choose to launch a preventive strike aimed at thwarting Iran's nuclear initiative before it becomes harder to target at the buried Fordo facility near Qom.

The Obama "administration is interested in sending a message to the Iranians that we have lots of things we can do that are tougher, ... [that it] can ratchet up the pressure on Iran," suggested Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with The Envoy Monday. "The administration may be lifting its skirt a little bit to show some ankle."

(And in actuality, Israel has received earlier shipments of U.S. bunker buster bombs, analysts said. For instance, the Bush Defense Department announced in 2008 plans to sell 1,000 GBU-39 smart bunker buster bombs to Israel, "to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability," according to an Associated Press report. However, Israeli analysts said at the time that the smaller, 250-pound, precision GBU-39 bombs were more useful against buried arsenals in Lebanon and Gaza--not Iran: "You would need something a lot heavier" for Iran, former Israeli military strategic planner Shlomo Brom told the AP. "The GBU-39 can penetrate 6 feet of concrete, and 6 feet is not enough" for targeting Iran's buried nuclear facilities, he said. By contrast, analysts note that the GBU-28 bombs reportedly transferred in the 2009 Obama deal are 5,000-pound bombs--e.g. twenty times heavier than the ones the Bush administration shipped in 2008.)

Could the disclosure now that Israel has the means to strike Iran's underground nuclear facilities change Iran's nuclear decision-making calculus? It's hard to know with any certainty, given that so many factors that might influence such a decision are still very much in play.

But in a meeting with journalists in New York last week, attended by The Envoy, Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not discount the possibility of an Israeli strike--and he warned harshly against it.

"The Zionists are quite eager to be able to damage the security of Iran," Ahmadinejad said through a translator at the Sept. 22 lunch with journalists, using "Zionists" to refer to the Israeli government. "It's their ultimate dream to be able to transgress against Iran. Certainly know Iran's response will be quite hard and it will be regretful for them. We assure everyone we will defend ourselves. I hope they avoid that fatal mistake."

Message delivered--and received?