The buzz around a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear program has shifted from whether it will happen to when and how. Events are conspiring to force choices on President Obama that he would rather avoid.
On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had met the previous day with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that “there is understanding and agreement that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon.” This has been the stated policy of the United States for many years. In his most recent State of the Union address, Mr. Obama reiterated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
Unfortunately, the types of options that could credibly dissuade Tehran from this course of action are dwindling. The European Union is phasing in an Iranian oil boycott, though this affects just 20 percent of the Islamic republic’s oil, which could be shifted to China and India. On Monday, the White House released an executive order freezing all of Tehran’s assets in the United States. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast responded that this move was largely symbolic because Iran “does not have any financial transactions” with the United States.
Washington has sent conflicting messages about the urgency of the nuclear issue. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the U.S. believes 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.” So in this view, evidence uncovered last year by United Nations inspectors that Iran was developing nuclear warheads for its missiles is not really a dangerous signal of intent, simply an option.
The intelligence community prefers to talk about capabilities rather than weapons, as though Iran’s strategy would involve claiming to have the components to make a nuclear weapon without actually putting them together. Only an American in deep denial would believe that a foreign state would pursue such a useless, counterproductive and self-defeating strategy. Every initial foreign nuclear test has come as a surprise to the CIA, so perhaps it is trying to keep that streak alive.
Israel doesn’t have the luxury of playing such word games. The Jewish state fears the window is closing on its ability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before they are buried so deep that such a mission would be fruitless. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not trust that the United States would support this action, Mr. Obama’s rhetoric about what is on the table notwithstanding. The election-year dynamic, however, may force events to a conclusion. Iran sees Mr. Obama as a known quantity, unlikely to act decisively in the event of a weapons test. A potential Republican successor may not be as pliable. From Israel’s point of view, because Mr. Obama is facing a tough re-election challenge, he might be compelled to back its play on Iran rather than appear weak and ineffective. Mr. Netanyahu has never believed in leading from behind.
The Washington Times
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