Obama's Gradualist Strategy on Iran May Not Prevent War

There are mounting concerns over a possible pre-emptive Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, and growing speculation that the Israelis could take such an action without receiving a green light from the Obama Administration.

Well, if you believe that, I've got a nuclear reactor in Dimona to sell you.

Even before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report last week concluding that "Iran worked to re-design and miniaturize a Pakistani nuclear-weapon design" and conducted "some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device," which "may still be ongoing," the Israeli media was speculating that the nation's political leaders were debating whether or not to bomb Iran's nuclear research centers. And that a decision on that issue would come sooner than later.

Moreover, Israeli journalists reported that both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak favored a military strike against Iran while other members of the Israeli cabinet, intelligence officials, and the military chiefs as well as the Obama Administration were opposed to the idea, arguing that the costs of a military confrontation with Iran would outweigh any likely benefits.

Indeed, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that a military strike would have "unintended consequences" and "could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region." His comments were the latest in series of similar remarks by U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressing strong reservations about the wisdom of a military option as a way of preventing the development of Iranian nuclear military capability.

But the notion that there is a major policy split between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran and that the Obama Administration is perhaps the only remaining obstacle to an Israeli military action is far-fetched, as is the suggestion that if push came to shove and Israeli leaders concluded that Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear military capabilities, they would move unilaterally to attack Iran despite American opposition.

Unlike the in the cases of Israeli attacks on the nuclear reactors in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), an Israeli strike against Iran is bound to trigger a regional war involving Hizbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon, which is expected to use its current arsenal of 50,000 missiles and rockets to launch attacks on Israeli cities, and could become an opportunity for Syria's leaders to shift attention from their domestic political problems by joining Iran and the Hizbollah in a full-blown war with Israel.

Moreover, Iran and its allies in neighboring Iraq -- ruled by a Shiite-led government -- would probably try to target some of the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq and to destabilize Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners in the Persian Gulf, triggering an American military retaliation.

So in practical terms, a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran would force the U.S to open a new and costly military front in the Middle East, not to mention the economic repercussions in the form of rising energy prices that could threaten an already fragile economic recovery. That Israel would take unilateral action that could help set the Middle East on fire and devastate core U.S. national interests doesn't make a lot of sense and runs contrary to political or military logic, especially when other non-military means are still available to slow-down Iran's nuclear military program.

More likely, much of the current "noise" over Iran in the media is part a coordinated American-Israeli psychological warfare against Tehran as the Obama Administration puts pressure on Russia and China to join in a UN-led set of sanctions against Iran.

My guess is that during the Israeli Prime Minister's first visit to Washington he and Obama reached an agreement on a gradualist political and military strategy to undermine Iran's nuclear military program through diplomacy and covert action. Part of that agreement also included an understanding that a military action against Iran would be considered if such a strategy would fail and Iran does get close to enriching enough uranium to develop a bomb.

President Barack Obama is hoping that his strategy vis-à-vis would not be a re-rerun of Bush's Iraq adventure and would look like the policy he followed in Libya. Hence, it is the IAEA and not the CIA that is publicizing Iran's effort to develop weapons of mass destruction, and the pressure on Tehran is promoted as a multilateral action, starting with the current diplomatic pressure and use of sanctions with the use of military force considered to be the last resort.

The problem is not only that there is no assurance that this gradualist strategy would work. More troubling is the fact that there has not been any serious debate in Washington over whether the acquisition of nuclear military capabilities by Iran is a direct threat to U.S. national interests and that military force should be used against Iran if diplomacy fails. If anything, the Republican "opposition" seems to be even more intent on forcing Iran to give up its nuclear military program, even if that would lead to a war with Iran. In a way, Obama can present himself to the American public as the "grownup" who refrains from "appeasing" Iran while at the same time resisting the pressure to go to war against that country.

Ironically, there has been more a vigorous public debate in Israel over whether to attack Iran where the idea of a nuclear Iran is seen by many as an "existential threat" than in the United States which, after all, had not gone to war to prevent the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan or North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and has concluded that a policy of deterrence is the most cost-effective way to deal with them.

President Obama should be applauded for not rushing to war with Iran. But the gradualist strategy he is implementing could eventually lead to the military confrontation that he wants to avoid.

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