Obama Seeks to Cool War Fever While Keeping Up Pressure on Iran

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attend at Cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 31, 2012

Nobody likely envies the challenge President Barack Obama faces getting his “messaging” right on Iran. He must meet the demands of election-year politics and continue to press Tehran’s back to the wall over its nuclear program, all the while avoiding the eruption of a major new Middle East war.

In an NBC interview that aired Sunday, Obama sought to apply a cold compress to the fever of war hysteria that broke out in the media last week over a report that his own Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, believes Israel will start a war with Iran by launching air strikes on its nuclear facilities before June. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported the views attributed to Panetta, and the media frenzy intensified when Panetta pointedly declined to confirm or deny the report.

Obama, by contrast, told NBC’s Matt Lauer he didn’t believe that “Israel has made a decision over what they need to do” on the Iran issue, and vowed that “we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try and solve this, hopefully diplomatically” – although he added that “all options” remain on the proverbial table.

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But the picture remains ambiguous since Israel has long insisted that it retains the right to make its own decisions over whether to take military action – as Obama acknowledged – and it is not directly involved in any diplomatic negotiations with Iran. Israel’s primary contribution to such diplomacy, as currently exists, has been to play the “bad cop” role of threatening military strikes. Its hope is that this would either intimidate Iran into backing down (it hasn’t, despite Israel continuously reiterating the threat of military action over the past five years) or at least press the Europeans into adopting harsher sanctions against Iran in order to restrain Israel from launching a war they’re desperate to avoid. (On that front, Israel has been remarkably successful.)

Given the alarm signals issuing from Israel in recent weeks, U.S. and other Western officials have reportedly been seeking to persuade the Israelis to desist from launching a military attack. While speculating that Israel might attack by the summer, Panetta also said publicly that “we have indicated our concerns” over that prospect. And in a CBS interview last month, he stated that the Pentagon’s priority, in the event of an Israeli strike, would be to protect U.S. troops from any Iranian backlash. One report even alleged that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told the Israelis on a recent visit that they should not expect the U.S. to fall in behind them if they choose to initiate a war with Iran without coordinating such a step with U.S.

“The administration appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets, which would trigger a strong U.S. response,” Ignatius wrote, although he notes that if Israeli cities came under attack, the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security would oblige it to come to Israel’s defense.

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While Israeli leaders publicly insist that the country must make its own decisions on a matter deemed so vital to its security, Israel’s limited tactical ability to mount the sort of sustained air assault required to inflict serious damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure means that it needs a plausible end-game scenario that won’t make things worse. A surprise air strike that did some damage but brought a backlash in which the U.S. stayed largely on the sidelines could be a strategic disaster for Israel. It could leave Israel more isolated, cause international efforts to squeeze Iran to come to an end, and very likely – as Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last December – prompt Iran to go ahead and build nuclear weapons, which it has not yet decided to do.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often argued that the only way to get Iran to back down is to present it with a credible threat of military action for failing to do so. But a threat is only credible if both sides believe it will be acted upon, and the danger is that if Iran chooses to ignore the threat, options are considerably narrow for those making it.

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The din created by Israeli saber rattling, and its echo in the U.S. domestic political arena, has helped shape the Administration’s narrative on Iran – that under President Obama, the U.S. has managed to impose the most punishing sanctions ever imposed on Iran and garnered the widest support yet for punitive action against the Islamic Republic. Those sanctions are beginning to hurt, and right now the focus should be on strengthening the measures in the hope they force Iran to relent on its nuclear work. In other words, Administration officials argue, sanctions could well succeed and render military action unnecessary. As if to underscore his commitment to tightening the squeeze on Iran economically, Obama on Monday signed a new Executive Order impounding all assets of Iran’s central bank traded or held in the U.S.

Toughening sanctions may placate Israel for a time and allow the President to demonstrate concrete action to pressure Iran as distinct from the campaign-trail saber rattling of his Republican challengers. But the prospects are, at best, uncertain that tougher sanctions combined with the threat of military action will force Iran to back down from developing a nuclear program that would put strategic weapons within reach, even if it stopped short of building and testing a bomb. Many Iran analysts doubt that the leadership in Tehran would allow itself to be seen as buckling under pressure, and some Israeli analysts fear that if Iran’s leaders believe an attack is inevitable and imminent, they may choose to strike first and start a war on terrain of their choosing.

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The least developed aspect of the Obama Administration’s strategy may be the diplomacy. Currently, the primary public channel for communicating with Iran is via the European Union–led “Permanent Five + One” talks, involving the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. Until now, that forum has been used largely to test Iran’s readiness to accept previous demands that have been backed by ever escalating sanctions.

If Iran were to cry uncle, it would easily find channels through which to concede defeat in the nuclear standoff. And if Tehran shows no interest in engagement, then the question of diplomatic channels is moot. But if Iran doesn’t cave, yet indicates a willingness to engage in a search for a compromise designed to strengthen guarantees against the militarization of its nuclear program, that would present new political and diplomatic challenges for the Administration. Those range from potentially differing bottom lines between the U.S. and its “lockstep” partner Israel on acceptable outcomes (particularly on the question of whether Iran retains the capacity to enrich uranium under international monitoring), fear of Iranian time wasting balanced against the reality that diplomacy requires patience and sustained engagement and, inevitably, election-year political considerations that necessitate not appearing “soft” on Iran.

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