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Obama and Iran: Are all options on the table?

Most of the buzz regarding Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remarks last week at the Brookings-sponsored annual Saban Forum has focused on his insistence that Israel needed to do more to mend fences with Egypt and Turkey, and — along with the Palestinians — need to "just get to the damn table."

Reading the entirety of Panetta’s remarks, it struck me that the headline could just as well have been "Pentagon Chief Talks Tough on Iran."

Here was what Panetta had to say during his prepared remarks:

In addition, Iran’s continued drive to develop nuclear capabilities, including troubling enrichment activities and past work on weaponization that has now been documented by the IAEA, and its continued support to groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations make clear that the regime in Tehran remains a very grave threat to all of us. …

I want to be clear that Israel can count on three enduring pillars in U.S. policy in the region, all of which contribute directly to the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people.  First, our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.  Second, our broader commitment to regional stability.  And third, our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  (Applause.) …

No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran. And that’s why the third pillar of our approach to this region – this critical region is our determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and more broadly to deter its destabilizing activities, particularly those that could threaten the free flow of commerce throughout this vital region.  That is a redline for the United States.  

Our approach to countering the threat posed by Iran is focused on diplomacy, including organizing unprecedented sanctions and strengthening our security partnerships with key partners in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East.

Last September I met in New York with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to underscore the importance of those partnerships.  Iran must ultimately realize that its quest for nuclear weapons will make it less, not more, secure.  These efforts are increasing Tehran’s isolation and I continue to believe that pressure – economic pressure, diplomatic pressure – and strengthened collective defenses are the right approach.  Still, it is my department’s responsibility to plan for all contingencies and to provide the president with a wide range of military options should they become necessary. 

That is a responsibility I take very seriously because when it comes to the threat posed by Iran, the president has made it very clear that we have not taken any options off the table.

With Panetta throwing around terms like "grave threat," "redline" and "wide range of military options," this doesn’t sound like an administration going soft on the issues of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The rub, writes Brookings senior fellow William Galston on TNR’s website, is that Israeli officialdom isn’t buying it:

During a break, I button-holed a knowledgeable, highly respected former Israeli official and asked whether he thought that the military option was still on the table for the United States. No, he replied, the United States had shifted to a containment strategy two years ago. Another former official, equally knowledgeable and respected, shook his head in dissent. No, he said, it was one year ago. While I didn’t meet all the Israelis in attendance, I talked with quite a few and didn’t encounter a differing view. And it was not a hard-line group: Supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu were in a distinct minority in the Israeli delegation, a fact that occasioned humor on both the Israeli and American sides.

Galston noted that during the Q & A, Panetta reiterated his reservations about a military strike:

Part of the problem here is the concern that at best, I think – talking to my friends – the indication is that at best it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years.  It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they’re after.  Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at.

That kind of, that kind of shot would only, I think, ultimately not destroy their ability to produce an atomic weapon, but simply delay it – number one.  Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.  

Thirdly, the United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.

Fourthly – there are economic consequences to that attack – severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States.

And lastly I think that the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.  

So we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of that kind of an attack. 

I suspect most Americans — pro-Israel or otherwise — would want a secretary of defense who thought long and hard about the consequences of military action. And more than once Panetta made clear that he wasn’t saying military action should be taken off the table — he was just explaining why it should be a last resort that comes only after the diplomacy-sanctions approach.

The problem, Galston says, is that it’s not just a matter of what U.S. officials say — it also matters how the words are heard by Israeli officials.

Whatever Panetta’s intention, Israelis heard those remarks as a declaration of his opposition to the use of force against Iran, even if that country was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons. (The administration’s reluctance to go along with sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran—a matter Israelis raised repeatedly during the meeting—only adds to its credibility problem.) …

Of course, Israel’s beliefs about American intentions toward Iran may well be mistaken.  But it is a fact that they hold those beliefs and will continue to do so unless the Obama administration can persuade them that the use of military force remains a live option. …

I do not claim to understand the intricacies of the relationship between the United States and Israel, and I know nothing about the ongoing private conversations between their senior officials. But one thing is clear: There is a chasm between the message U.S. officials say they’re sending and the message Israeli officials say they’re receiving. And if the two countries continue not to understand each other, the results could be catastrophic.

Why catastrophic? Galston doesn’t spell it out, but the conventional wisdom in many pro-Israel circles goes something like this … If Jerusalem becomes convinced that the rest of the world is resigned to a nuclear-armed Iran, then Israeli officials might feel compelled to attempt a military gambit. So the best way to give the diplomacy-sanctions approach enough time to work is to convince Israeli officials that if the diplomacy-sanctions approach fails other measures are truly on the table.

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