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Dennis Ross on Iran: The Message Is the Medium

Advocacy of diplomacy signals U.S. willingness to use war

Marc Tracy
February 15, 2012
Dennis Ross and Defense Minister Barak in 2010.(Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images)
Dennis Ross and Defense Minister Barak in 2010.(Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images)

Being until a few months ago the Obama administration’s top national security adviser on the Middle East and the member of the president’s team most trusted by the Israelis, what Dennis Ross has to say in an op-ed today and to reporters earlier this week is best read as the administration’s public response to Israeli chatter, also made in part through articles, that it is seriously considering an attack on Iran. What does Ross have to say? Not that diplomacy will get Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program, but rather that, if diplomacy will ever work, it will now. And: “Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons.” This is also, of course, what President Obama continues to insist. But Israel must not totally, completely believe Obama, and that’s where Ross comes in.

Here’s the truism not said enough: when it comes to ultimate questions, the Israeli and United States governments agree on Iran a lot more than you would suppose from reading all of these articles. Both sides agree that a military attack is not ideal (if Israel believed one were, it would have launched one already); both sides believe a U.S. attack would be superior, in terms of both politics and effectiveness, to an Israeli one; and both sides, as far as we can know, believe Iran must be barred from the bomb. The disagreement is strategic. And this disagreement is born not only of the two countries’ situations, but of a fundamental gap in knowledge and trust that—it must be said—might not exist with two leaders more amenable to each other and a common policy than Prime Minister Netanyahu and Obama.

And this trust gap is the target of Ross’ statements. If Ross, specifically Ross, is saying that the administration’s diplomacy track is worth trying, then that must mean—so the tea leaf-reading goes—that the administration is serious when it says it is ready to move to the next step if diplomacy fails. The substance of Ross’s argument, about sanctions and embargoes crippling Iran’s economy and forcing it into a place where it will agree to substantial concessions, is almost beside the point (although it is notable that the U.S. does believe Iran is truly amenable to diplomacy). The message is the medium: if Ross has agreed to say what Obama wants him to say (and indeed believes what Obama believes), then that could be a signal to the Israelis that Obama will ultimately do what Netanyahu, and Ross, wants if diplomacy fails. If the Israelis do not pick up this signal, they will attack, because they will believe that the alternative is to not know for sure that an Iranian bomb will be prevented.

The situation, as far as we know, is this: Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to make it weapons-grade, and moreover can do so at a bunker fortified to withstand Israeli and—maybe, but not definitely—U.S. bombardment; it has not yet made the political decision to pursue a weapon; once it makes that decision, it will require at least six months to enrich the necessary uranium and then another year or more to effectively arm it. Israel says its red line is the ability to do all of this in a heavily fortified fashion, and we are there; the U.S. says its red line is the decision to do all this, and we are not there. The reason they disagree is not, primarily, because Israel feels more threatened by an Iranian bomb (though it should) or even that Israel’s leaders are more hawkish (though they probably are). It’s that the Israelis, knowing that they are more threatened by an Iranian bomb and seeing in Obama a still somewhat inscrutable figure who has caught them by surprise before (most memorably in his speech mentioning 1967 borders with land swaps last May), do not fully trust Obama to resort to military action should that become necessary.

That lack of trust sets off a chain reaction in Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak’s minds: we don’t know if the Americans will absolutely prevent a bomb, they think, therefore we must prevent a bomb; we don’t know if our weapons will enable us to prevent an Iranian bomb once production is underway, so we must strike sooner (or, even better, make the U.S. believe we will strike sooner so that, knowing a U.S. strike is better, it will do it anyway). The rational calculation that the U.S. is making, which is that we have not yet reached the last possible moment to strike and therefore should not yet strike, is only operative if you know the U.S. would strike at that last possible moment, and Bibi and Barak say they don’t.

This line of thinking was articulated in the most important nugget from Newsweek’s superb story this week. A former Israeli official is channeling Barak’s thinking:

“If Israel will miss its last opportunity [to attack], then we will have to lean only on the United States, and if the United States decides not to attack, then we will face an Iran with a bomb.” … This source says that Israel has asked Obama for assurances that if sanctions fail, he will use force against Iran. Obama’s refusal to provide that assurance has helped shape Israel’s posture: a refusal to promise restraint, or even to give the United States advance notice.

This is why few believe the chatter is pure bluster.

Before the Super Bowl, Obama said of the U.S. and Israel, “We are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically.” In fact, they haven’t been in lockstep. Communiqués like those Ross is putting out are designed to put the two countries back in sync.

Both sides should want this: as long as the U.S. and Israel do not fully trust each other and feel they do not have a totally firm grasp on the other’s thinking, the decision over whether or not to use military action will be Israel’s; but if they close the gap and truly are working “in lockstep,” then the decision whether or not to use military action will actually become Iran’s, because it will know the consequences of all the moves it can make. Giving Iran the opportunity to, in effect, decline a military strike against its facilities surely makes it more likely that it will choose not to pursue weapons; and it also means that if there is a strike, Iran’s leaders will, almost literally, have asked for it.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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