A Dangerous Game on Iran

The Obama administration is engaged in complex diplomacy over Israel’s possible attack on Iran, trying simultaneously to restrain Israel and use its military threat to pressure Iran on its nuclear program. But some maneuvers may work at cross purposes, Gareth Porter writes for Inter Press Service.

By Gareth Porter

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius this week that he believes Israel was likely to attack Iran between April and June, it was ostensibly yet another expression of alarm at the Israeli government’s threats of military action.

But even though the administration is undoubtedly concerned about that Israeli threat, the Panetta leak had a different objective. The White House was taking advantage of the current crisis atmosphere over that Israeli threat and even seeking to make it more urgent in order to put pressure on Iran to make diplomatic concessions to the United States and its allies on its nuclear program in the coming months.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at NATO conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 4 (Official Defense Department photo)

The real aim of the leak brings into sharper focus a contradiction in the Barack Obama administration’s Iran policy between its effort to reduce the likelihood of being drawn into a war with Iran and its desire to exploit the Israeli threat of war to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran.

The Panetta leak makes it less likely that either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iranian strategists will take seriously Obama’s effort to keep the United States out of a war initiated by an Israeli attack. It seriously undercut the message carried to the Israelis by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last month that the United States would not come to Israel’s defense if it launched a unilateral attack on Iran, as IPS reported on Feb. 1.

A tell-tale indication of Panetta’s real intention was his very specific mention of the period from April through June as the likely time frame for an Israeli attack. Panetta suggested that the reason was that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had identified this as the crucial period in which Iran would have entered a so-called “zone of immunity” – the successful movement of some unknown proportion of Iran’s uranium enrichment assets to the highly protected Fordow enrichment plant.

But Barak had actually said in an interview last November that he “couldn’t predict” whether that point would be reached in “two quarters or three quarters or a year”.

Why, then, would Panetta deliberately specify the second quarter as the time frame for an Israeli attack? The one explicit connection between the April-June period and the dynamics of the U.S.-Israel-Iran triangle is the expiration of the six-month period delay in the application of the European Union’s apparently harsh sanctions against the Iranian oil sector.

That six-month delay in the termination of all existing EU oil contracts with Iran was announced by the EU on Jan. 23, but it was reported as early as Jan. 14 that the six-month delay had already been adopted informally as a compromise between the three-month delay favored by Britain, France and Germany and the one-year delay being demanded by other member countries.

The Obama administration had also delayed its own sanctions on Iranian oil for six months, after having been forced to accept such sanctions by the U.S. Congress at the urging of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The administration recognized that six-month period before U.S. and EU sanctions take effect as a window for negotiations with Iran aimed at defusing the crisis over its nuclear program. So it was determined to use that same time frame to put pressure on Iran to accommodate U.S. and European demands.

By the time the news of the postponement of the U.S.-Israeli military exercise broke on Jan. 15, Panetta was already prepared to take advantage of that development to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran.

Laura Rozen of Yahoo News reported that U.S. Defense Department officials and former officials, speaking anonymously, said Barak had requested the postponement and that they were “privately concerned” the request “could be one potential warning signal Israel is trying to leave its options open for conducting a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring.”

The Israelis were not on board with that Obama administration tactic. In fact, Netanyahu seemed more interested in portraying the Obama administration as favoring a soft approach on Iran in an election year.

Instead of reinforcing the effort by Panetta to use the six-month window to bring diplomatic pressure, Defense Minister Barak, speaking on Army Radio on Jan. 18, said the government had “no date for making decisions” on a possible attack on Iran and, adding “The whole thing is very far off.”

Another indication that the Ignatius column was not intended to increase pressure on Israel – but rather to impress Iran – is that it did not reinforce the message taken by Gen. Dempsey to Israel last month that the United States would not join any war with Iran that Israel had initiated on its own without consulting with Washington.

Ignatius wrote that the administration “appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets which would trigger a strong U.S. response.” But then he added what was clearly the main point: “Administration officials caution that Tehran shouldn’t misunderstand: the United States has a 60-year commitment to Israeli security, and if Israeli population centers were hit, the United States could feel obligated to come to Israel’s defense.”

Ignatius, who is known for reflecting only the views of the top U.S. defense and intelligence officials, was clearly reporting what he had been told by Panetta in Brussels.

Further underlining the real intention behind Panetta leak, Ignatius went out of his way to present Netanyahu’s assumptions about a war as credible, if not perfectly reasonable, hinting that this was the view he was getting from Panetta.

The Israelis, he wrote “are said to believe that a military strike could be limited and constrained.” Emphasizing the Israeli doubt that Iran would dare to retaliate heavily against Israeli population centers, Ignatius cited “(o)ne Israeli estimate” that a war against Iran would only entail “about 500 civilian casualties.”

Ignatius chose not to point out that the estimate of less than 500 deaths had been given by Barak last November in response to a statement by former Mossad director Meir Dagan that an attack on Iran would precipitate a “regional war that would endanger the (Israeli) state’s existence”.

After that Barak claim, Dagan said in an interview with Haaretz newspaper that he assumes that “the level of destruction and paralysis of everyday life, and Israeli death toll would be high.” But Ignatius ignored the assessment of the former Mossad director.

The Panetta leak appears to confirm the fears of analysts following the administration’s Iran strategy closely that its effort to distance the United States from an Israeli attack would be ineffective because of competing interests.

Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian-American Council who worked in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs from 2006 to 2010, doubts the administration can avoid being drawn into an Israeli war with Iran without a very public and unequivocal statement that it will not tolerate a unilateral and unprovoked Israeli attack.

“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And sometimes the only way to ensure that a friend doesn’t endanger you or themselves is to take the away the car keys,” Marashi said.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006. [This story originally appeared at Inter Press Service.]

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8 comments on “A Dangerous Game on Iran

  1. Kenny Fowler on said:

    “doubts the administration can avoid being drawn into an Israeli war with Iran without a very public and unequivocal
    statement that it will not tolerate a unilateral and unprovoked Israeli attack.”

    Good point. Obama said no, the U.S. is not attacking, period. The Israeli’s got that message. Now he needs to follow up.

  2. Kafantaris on said:

    Though Europe and the United States are accelerating economic sanctions in an effort to appease Israel, it plans to attack Iran anyway.  One might start to wonder which of these two is now the more rogue state in the Middle East.
    Should Israel surgically attack Iran, as it had done Iraq twenty years ago, we can expect Iran to return fire.   And Iran might have unknown weapons in its arsenal and unknown ways to use them. 
    The question then becomes to what extent do we help Israel when it picks a fight with Iran?
    If the U.S. helps it unconditionally, as it had done before, then we risk retaliation from Iran on our nearby facilities. The same is true for european countries which are all within a striking distance of Iran.  
    So what do we do, sit back and not help a friend trying to make the world a safer place for the rest of us?
    In this case, perhaps. 
    If Israel wants to bomb Iran on its own terms, when it wants to and how it wants to, then it can also stand ready to fend for itself when Iran returns fire.  To let it assume otherwise is irresponsible since it encourages rogue action on the expectation of help.  With the world on the mend from a profound economic downturn, such foreseeable misstep should be avoided. 
    Does this mean then that we  should resign ourselves to a nuclear Iran? George W. Bush may have thought so, as he may have thought the same about a nuclear North Korea.   And despite his and Dick Cheney’s professed love for Israel, they might have been looking for new friend in the Middle East when they toppled Saddam.  Iraq did not prove a friend, but it has proved that U.N. inspections can work because the UN teams had destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction. 
    Who knows, in time our economic sanctions might also slow down Iran.  If not, having nuclear Iran —  or nuclear anyone else — is something the rest of us can learn to live with. 
    Maybe Israel should too.  And conduct itself accordingly.  

  3. Duane gutcher on said:

    A simple solution. Eliminate the outrageous and unsustainable economic and military aid to israel the war drums would go silent…

    • Frances in California on said:

      . . . and Erik Prince would be forced into the light of day! Oh, yeah! We definitely should do that.

  4. charles sereno on said:

    “When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius this week that he believes Israel was likely to attack Iran between April and June…”
    There’s a lot of deniability lurking here. Panetta, later, would not confirm Ignatius’ assertion but neither would he reject it. All of this diplomatic game-playing is not just for show. The US rightly regards the Iranian regime as being in a heightened state of siege. Add to that their cumbersome ideological baggage and you have a nation prone to make a mistake when sufficiently goaded. Could this not be the strategy? Get them to pull a “Gulf of ‘Tonkin’?”

  5. Karen Romero on said:

    Hi Gareth,
    I have not yet read your article, but I do want to thank Consortium News for posting that picture of Hillary and Leon. I printed the picture, then I tore Hillary out of the picture, wadded her picture in a ball, and threw that part of the picture in the proper recepticle!
    I know some people don’t like Leon, but from what I have read about him (in the real records) he is more of a good man than a bad man. Plus he has a conscience. The way in which Hillary treated Cathy O’Brien is not someone that has much of a conscience. She owes Cathy O’Brien a heartfelt apology.
    Truly,
    Karen Romero

    • Frances in California on said:

      Dear Karen: Erik Prince likes Leon Panetta; ’nuff said. You’re right about Cathy O’Brien, of course.

  6. David Bend on said:

    wish somebody would pursue the idea that nations do not always act in their own self interest when under threat. thinking mainly about the crippling sanctions we enacted against japan in 1940-41 to halt and reverse that country’s expansionist activities in asia.