Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas write for EA:
On Thursday, the head of Israel's military intelligence, Major General Amir Kochavi, made an important announcement. He said that, while Iran is developing its nuclear programme in 2013, it "has not yet decided to build a bomb".
Here's the catch: those who rely on Western media are unlikely to learn of this.
Instead, they will be treated to this far scarier spin, also taken from Kochavi's presentation: "Iran and Hezbollah Have Built 50,000-Strong Force to Help Syrian Regime".
So why did one declaration of Kochavi --- which is a misreading of a statement by an Iranian military commander last autumn --- make the headlines? Why is another --- which is far more significant and points to the debate within Israel over what to do about Tehran --- ignored?
Kochavi was speaking at the Herzliya Security Conference, a high-profile annual gathering of officials, analysts, academics, and journalists. For those following Israeli diplomacy and military policy, it is an essential gathering to get both insight and the public-relations line from the Israeli Government.
The General's words soon made it into the English-language Jerusalem Post. Because the paper is generally "hawkish" about Iran, it was an eye-opener to see the "not yet decided to buld a bomb".
Many readers, however, may not have gotten far enough to have their eyes opened. The key statement was in the fifth paragraph of the Post's original story. Later, it was further obscured --- placed at the end of the seventh paragraph and hedged with this: "The Iranian leadership would like to find itself in the position of being able to break out to an atomic weapon stage in a short period of time."
More importantly, the Post's headline was tangential: "Iran Believes Chance of Attack on It is Low".
Most importantly, the Post's sub-headline was on a completely different topic:
Military intel head Kochavi tells Herzliya Conference Iran and Hezbollah are setting up militia in Syria made up of 50,000 fighters.
Strangely, this sub-headline almost disappears in the article. The only reference to it comes in the ninth paragraph: "Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah, know that the Syrian dictator’s fate is sealed, Kochavi said, and have flooded Syria with a militia consisting of 50,000 fighters."
This indicates that, despite the drama of the claim, Kochavi only made it in passing and that he gave no support for the 50,000 figure.
And indeed he is unlikely to have been able to do so. For while Iran's military is providing logistical support to Damascus, the "50,000-man Iran-Hezbollah militia" is an urban legend based on a key distorition. As we noted last month, after The Washington Post ran a scare story:
The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, only acknowledged in September that a militia exists, not that it has been fostered and trained by Tehran:
"There are more than 50,000 Syrian people who have organized as a people’s army, or a force of Syrian Basij, who are standing beside the army in the face of the unfair attacks from the countries of the region and outside the region."
So not only did Western journalists not check the repeated "50,000" claim --- they echoed The Jerusalem Post's sub-headline that this was the Big Story. Here's Julian Borger of The Guardian, who is in Herzliya:
Iran and Hezbollah have built a 50,000-strong parallel force in Syria to help prolong the life of the Assad regime and to maintain their influence after his fall, Israel's military intelligence chief has claimed.
Major General Aviv Kochavi said Iran intended to double the size of this Syrian "people's army", which he claimed was being trained by Hezbollah fighters and funded by Tehran, to bolster a depleted and demoralised Syrian army.
But what about Kochavi's statement that there no imminent prospect of an Iranian bomb?
Borger never mentions it. Indeed, caught up in the "50,000" --- and soon "100,000" --- spin, he does not expand a single word on the nuclear issue.
Here's The Daily Telegraph of London, with its reporter Robert Tait filing from Jerusalem: "Iran Has Force of 50,000 in Syria, Claims Israel".
Tait repeats Borger's story, using the same quotes from Kochavi. In the final four paragraphs of the article, however, he does turn to the nuclear question: "[Kochavi] said Iran’s nuclear programme — which Israel says is aimed at building an atomic bomb — had been slowed but not sufficiently to prevent it from developing weapons."
Tait does not mention the head of military intelligence's assessment that Iran is not actually building a bomb.
So why is that omission important, as many Western outlets play Follow the Leader on the "50,000" story?
Kochavi's statement about Iran and the Bomb was not just a throw-away line. It was an important signal. The General was saying that, while the Iranian nuclear programme had to be watched carefully,it is not an imminent threat to Israel --- one requiring a military strike on Tehran's facilities in the near-future.
Kochavi is not the only high-level official putting out that message. On the eve of his trip to Israel, President Barack Obama told the country's Channel 2 in an interview on Thursday that Iran was at least a year away from any weapon. Thus, while "all options were on the table" over the nuclear issue, Washington would continue to pursue diplomacy and tough sanctions --- and would urge Israel to support that.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not like that message, preferring to hold out the prospect of airstrikes in forthcoming months. It appears, however, that his military and intelligence services --- who put out the message earlier this month that it might be 2015 or 2016 before Iran has a nuclear weapons --- are on Obama's side.
While others have been distracted, the Daily Star of Lebanon hears the message:
Netanyahu has not publicly revised the spring-to-summer 2013 dating for his "red line". But several Israeli officials privately acknowledged it had been deferred, maybe indefinitely.
"The red line was never a deadline," one told Reuters.
That was the Big Story in Major General Amir Kochavi's statement on Thursday.
It is not the one many people will get today.