See if you can follow this: Top U.S. general publicly warns against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, calling it “not prudent;” Israeli Defense Minister Barak demands yet further sanctions, saying the current ones aren’t working well enough (implying that in the absence of further sanctions, an attack makes sense); Britain’s foreign minister also says an attack right now is not a great idea; the Obama Adminstration sends its national security adviser and is about to send its intelligence chief to Israel to convey that the time is not ripe; and finally—breaking the fourth wall!—top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, scold the national security adviser, insisting that these U.S. warnings are not helpful, then leak this scolding. “The Iranians see there’s controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act,” a senior Israeli official explained to Haaretz. “That reduces the pressure on them.”
Meanwhile, Iran keeps tip-toeing closer and closer to Israel’s red line—unless we find out tomorrow that they already passed it. Last time, it was that the underground facility in Fordo was ready to enrich uranium … but uranium wasn’t being enriched there, yet. This past weekend, the Islamic Republic announced that it has readied the Fordo site—whose ample fortification itself makes it threatening to Israel—for advanced centrifuges … but it hasn’t installed the centrifuges there, yet. It’s like poking a snake with a stick to see how firmly you have to poke it before it lashes out. And, as is Iran’s wont, it matched stick with carrot, sending a letter hinting at a willingness to negotiate further. A team of U.N. atomic inspectors is back in the country. If you expect much to come out of either development, you are one of the more optimistic observers.
Yesterday, the New York Times published the thoughts of U.S. defense experts suggesting that Israel may well lack the capacity to pull off a successful air strike of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The article contained numerous interesting details, such as the fact that Israel’s likely flight path would take it over Iraq, whose airspace the United States is conveniently no longer obligated to defend, and Jordan, which perhaps helps explain why the peace process has evolved into a gigantic pro-Hashemite charade over the past couple months. It’s a pretty good tick-tock of how Israel would go about launching a strike, and it doesn’t outright deny the possibility that a strike could achieve Israel’s goals. (Austin Long argued in Tablet Magazine that Israel could pull it off.) Apparently revealing classified information, defense expert Edward Luttwak—whom literary editor David Samuels interviewed last year—argued that a far smaller strike, much more commensurate to Israel’s capabilities, could also do a number on Iran’s alleged weapons program, though I’d feel more comfortable if I saw other people arguing this, too, and if the military hadn’t recommended solely a major air war, and if the argument didn’t rely on Iran’s being likely not to retaliate at all.
But the Times piece, like everything else, is about message-sending: the United States telling Israel (and the public) that it doesn’t think Israel can credibly back up its threats. Indeed, it is one more instance of exactly the sort of thing Netanyahu and company were complaining about.
Of course, intrinsic to the “Israel shouldn’t attack Iran because it probably wouldn’t be successful” argument is the “the U.S. should attack Iran because Israel might not be successful” argument. The layers are dizzying, and ultimately inconclusive, as, for example, this entertaining Politico article on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s maybe-strategic links about Israeli intentions illustrates. Maybe Panetta wants the public to think Israel is about to attack so other countries agree to further sanctions that head off the attack; maybe Panetta wants the public to think Israel is about to attack so that Israel doesn’t attack; maybe Panetta just doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.
What is clear is that Israel and the United States are not on the same page and perhaps not necessarily even speaking the same language, something that was apparent last week when Dennis Ross was trying to convince Netanyahu and Barak that President Obama would resort to military action if it came down to brass tacks. The next, and perhaps last, best hope for getting the two countries on the same page will come March 5, when Netanyahu, in Washington to address AIPAC, will indeed meet with Obama face-to-face for the first time since at the United Nations last September. Or maybe Bibi will be assured that, by the summer, the Republican primaries will be over and Obama will be facing a unified Republican field hammering him every day for not being tougher on Iran.
The Israeli official who said this public discord strengthens Iran’s position is probably correct. Yet the administration also believes it is correct that now is a really bad time to attack, and may justifiably feel that that opinion will carry little weight unless it is made publicly, where the U.S. and Israeli publics can see it. A closer relationship between these two governments might not be tipping their respective hands, as the Israeli official feels. It might also have given the U.S. greater leverage over Israeli intentions and actions.
AP Exclusive: Iran Poised for Big Nuke Expansion [AP/Yahoo!]
U.S., EU Welcome Iran Nuclear Letter, Suggest Talks [Reuters]
Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets [NYT]
The President Has Been Given a False Choice on Iran [WSJ]
Deciphering Panetta’s Iran Press Dance [Politico]
Israel to U.S.: Disagreement Over Attack on Nuclear Sites Serves Iranian Interests [Haaretz]
Republican Candidates See Opening on Israel and Iran [NYT The Caucus]
Related: Can They? [Tablet Magazine]
Q&A: Edward Luttwak [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Dennis Ross on Iran: The Message Is the Medium