Yesterday, the White House announced that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington on March 5.
The encounter between the two leaders will take place against the backdrop of a flurry of reports about the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
To date, senior American officials ranging from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have publicly warned Israel against taking such action. Coupled with the Obama administration’s apparent downplaying of Iran’s nuclear progress, the question arises: Is Obama focused more on containing Tehran or Jerusalem?
Mr. Netanyahu is about to find out.
CONTAINING ISRAEL ON IRAN
Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2012
Is the Obama Administration more concerned that Iran may get a nuclear weapon, or that Israel may use military force to prevent Iran from doing so? The answer is the latter, judging from comments [last] Sunday by Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
Appearing on CNN, General Dempsey sent precisely the wrong message if the main U.S. strategic goal is convincing Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. He said the U.S. is urging Israel not to attack Iran—because Iran hasn’t decided to build a bomb, because an Israeli attack probably wouldn’t set back Iran by more than a couple of years, and because it would invite retaliation and be “destabilizing” throughout the Middle East.
“That’s the question with which we all wrestle. And the reason we think that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” the General said, referring to a possible Iranian response to an attack. “That’s been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis. And we also know or believe we know that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the capability—or the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability.”
In a single sound bite, General Dempsey managed to tell the Iranians they can breathe easier because Israel’s main ally is opposed to an attack on Iran, such attack isn’t likely to work in any case, and the U.S. fears Iran’s retaliation. It’s as if General Dempsey wanted to ratify Iran’s rhetoric that the regime is a fearsome global military threat.
If the U.S. really wanted its diplomacy to work in lieu of force, it would say and do whatever it can to increase Iran’s fear of an attack. It would say publicly that Israel must be able to protect itself and that it has the means to do so. America’s top military officer in particular should say that if Iran escalates in response to an Israeli attack, the U.S. would have no choice but to intervene on behalf of its ally. The point of coercive diplomacy is to make an adversary understand that the costs of its bad behavior will be very, very high.
The general is not a free-lancer, so his message was almost certainly guided by the White House. His remarks only make strategic sense if President Obama’s real priority is to contain Israel first—especially before the November election.
This might also explain General Dempsey’s comments that the U.S. doesn’t believe Iran’s regime has decided to build an atomic bomb and that it is a “rational” actor, like, say, the Dutch. This would be the same rational Iran that refuses to compromise on its nuclear plans despite increasingly damaging global sanctions, and the same prudent actor that has sent agents around the world to bomb Israeli and Saudi targets, allegedly including in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.
Iran doesn’t need to explode a bomb, or even declare that it has one, to win its nuclear standoff. All it needs to do is get to the brink and make everyone believe it can build a bomb when it wants to. Then the costs of deterring Iran go up exponentially, and the regime’s leverage multiplies in the Middle East and against American interests. General Dempsey’s assurances obscure that military and political reality.
Like most of Mr. Obama’s Iran policy, General Dempsey’s comments will have the effect of making war more likely, not less. They will increase Israel’s anxiety about U.S. support, especially if Mr. Obama is re-elected and he has a freer political hand. This may drive Israel’s leadership to strike sooner. Weakness invites war, and General Dempsey has helped the Administration send a message of weakness to Israel and Iran.
OBFUSCATING IRAN’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM
Weekly Standard, February 15, 2012
During an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer shortly before the Super Bowl on February 5, President Obama was asked about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the possibility of an Israeli airstrike. “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” Obama said. “I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.”
At least the president spoke candidly of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program…” [as] this is something the U.S. intelligence community has a difficult time doing. America’s top spooks prefer to obfuscate the issue.
Here is how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in written testimony given to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31—less than one week prior to President Obama’s interview: “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
So while the president openly discusses Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” his spy chief isn’t sure if Iran has even decided to build the world’s most deadly weapons.… Clapper and the analysts who helped craft his testimony are relying on an illogical premise: that Iran would do everything in its power to pursue the components necessary to build nukes without having decided to actually put those pieces together. This makes no sense.
Iran would not go out of its way to enrich uranium beyond what is necessary for civilian purposes, construct covert uranium enrichment facilities (as it did at Qom), continue to pursue various means of constructing a warhead (as confirmed by the IAEA, and contrary to the intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate), and engage in sundry other nuclear weapons efforts without making a political decision to build nuclear weapons.
The purpose of Clapper’s testimony was not to provide a clear-eyed intelligence assessment, however, but to advance a specific policy agenda. Clapper insists (emphasis added): “We judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.”
The intelligence community’s message is clear: We’d prefer for policymakers to continue to try everything short of a military strike. But it is not Clapper or the intelligence community’s place to advocate such an approach. That is a political decision.…
More importantly, what evidence is there that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons? The Obama administration’s outreach to the mullahs failed. The Europeans’ efforts failed before that. The Obama administration’s sanctions regime…has not convinced the mullahs to foreswear nukes. And various other American efforts at rapprochement on a range of issues dating back decades (i.e., terrorism)…have similarly fallen short.
There is simply no evidence that the international community has discovered any diplomatic, financial, or other means for bringing an end to what President Obama accurately calls Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.”
Even taking Clapper’s argument about Iran’s “cost-benefit approach” on its own terms is far from convincing. Iran has already suffered substantial costs in terms of international “prestige” and “influence”—economic and otherwise—and has unquestionably decided that the benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons are worth it. We know this because Iran has borne these costs even while making significant strides toward building nuclear weapons.
Clapper himself writes: “Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.”
Iran’s rulers, therefore, have acquired the “capacity” to make nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community is simply hoping that there is one last imaginary line for them to cross before they do so.
(Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)
THE U.S.-ISRAELI TRUST GAP ON IRAN
Washington Post, February 14, 2012
Two months ago we questioned a decision by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to spell out publicly his objections to an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program—a speech that must have cheered the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Now Mr. Panetta has indirectly caused a similar stir: After a conversation with Mr. Panetta this month, The [Washington] Post’s David Ignatius reported that the Pentagon chief “believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.”
What could explain this public undercutting of one of America’s closest allies? The unfortunate answer seems to be a lack of strategic agreement or basic trust between the Obama administration and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. A senior U.S. intelligence official recently said that Israel has grown reticent about discussing a possible attack on Iran and had declined to offer an assurance that it would consult Washington before acting. That leaves the administration facing the possibility that it will be presented with an Israeli-Iranian conflict that could expand to encompass U.S. forces and allies in the Persian Gulf.…
While the Obama administration suggests that only a clear Iranian attempt to produce a nuclear weapon would justify military intervention, Israel believes that Iran’s acquisition of the capacity to do so—achieving the status of a threshold nuclear power, like India and Pakistan before 1997—would also be intolerable. That’s understandable for a country within missile range of a regime that has called for the extinction of the Jewish state.…
Israeli commanders judge that in a few months, once Iran has fully prepared a new nuclear facility located under a mountain, Israel’s capacity to disable the program with air strikes will be greatly reduced. The United States would retain a military window of opportunity for longer. But can the Netanyahu government count on the Obama administration to act if a moment of truth arrives?
For now, several top Israeli officials are skeptical. That is where Mr. Panetta and Mr. Obama should be making an effort. Rather than publicly arguing with Israel, they should be more clearly spelling out U.S. willingness to take military action [against] Iran.… Saying “all options are on the table” is not enough; the Obama administration should be explicit about Iranian actions that will violate its red lines—and what the consequences will be.
ON IRAN, A STARK CHOICE
LA Times, February 14, 2012
Most people in the Arab world, according to opinion polls, believe that the Holocaust never happened, that it’s a Jewish invention and trick to win the world’s sympathy and support. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is similarly minded; he has said so countless times.
In the West, speaking of the Holocaust, most leaders and commentators concede that it did, indeed, occur. But, privately and sometimes publicly, some tell the Israelis: “Get over it.” They mean that the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II should not dominate, or perhaps even strongly influence, Israel’s policies today.
But is this reasonable or even moral? Should Israel set aside the memory and reality of what happened to its people, and conduct its life as a nation as if nothing happened?
The fact is that Israel’s leaders, reflecting Israeli public opinion, take very seriously Iran’s oft-repeated threat to create a second Holocaust, to wipe the Jewish state—”the Zionist entity” or “Zionist regime,” as the Iranians call it—off the map. They take equally seriously Iran’s nuclear program.… Israelis, at least those who don’t bury their heads in the sand, believe that if the Iranians get nuclear weapons they will, in the end, use them—or at a minimum, cannot be relied on not to use them—and that Israel’s very existence is at stake.
After years of Israeli cajoling and blandishments, the United States and the European community have at last started to impose serious sanctions against Tehran, targeting its oil industries and central bank. But the sanctions have come too late—and, besides, many in the international community, meaning Russia, China, India, Turkey, the Arab states and some other countries, are not on board or are actively subverting these sanctions, rendering them ultimately ineffective. The Iranians have said as much: They will not abandon their nuclear program, even if the sanctions bite into their citizens’ living standards.…
Yet America’s and Europe’s leaders tell Israel: Wait, give the sanctions time.
But time has almost run out. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has publicly stated that Iran…could have the bomb within a year.… And perhaps Panetta is wrong—perhaps there is less time than he thinks. Or, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it earlier this month, those who advise Israel to wait till later may end up discovering that “later is too late.”
The choice is clear and stark. Either Iran, led by fanatical, brutal and millenarian leaders, will get the bomb, or it will be prevented from doing so by military assault on its nuclear installations, by America or Israel. If the Americans, who have the capability to do a thorough job, don’t do it…then the Israelis, with their more limited capabilities, will have to. How Washington, which has repeatedly and more or less publicly vetoed the idea, would react to an Israeli strike deeply worries policymakers in Jerusalem. But it worries them far less than a nuclear-weaponized Iran.…
The Israelis may have the capability, using conventional weapons, only to delay the Iranian nuclear program and only by a few years. But any delay is good; perhaps the international community…will wake up to the danger of a nuclear Iran and take effective measures to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program definitively.…