This month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chief of Staff chair Gen. Martin Dempsey continued a months-long pattern of tougher U.S. statements about Iran. To be sure, both were still uncomfortable about the prospect of an Israeli strike when addressing reporters on Aug. 14 — Dempsey noted that such a move would only “delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” while Panetta stated “there is room to continue to negotiate.” Yet neither repeated their pre-March warnings about the potential negative consequences of an attack. In fact, Panetta emphasized that it is up to Israel to decide whether or not to strike.
Until early March, U.S. officials speaking about Iran tended to warn about the risks of resorting to force. On Feb. 5, President Obama stated, “Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran.”
Most striking was Panetta’s Dec. 2 warning: “At best [a military attack] might postpone [Iran from getting a bomb] maybe one, possibly two years…. Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences,” including retaliation from Iran; allowing an isolated regime “to suddenly reestablish itself”; “severe economic consequences”; and “an escalation that could consume the Middle East in a confrontation.”
Another longstanding theme was the notion that diplomacy was the sole option at the moment, with no indication of what could cause that to change. For instance, when asked on March 1 whether there were any red lines that Iran must not cross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied, “It’s probably smarter for us to be pressing on the sanctions and the negotiations.”
Yet this message shifted following Obama’s March 4 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Since then, three themes from his remarks have shown up repeatedly in statements by top U.S. officials:
• U.S. policy is prevention, not containment.
• Israel has the right to do what it thinks is essential.
• The time for diplomacy is limited.
Yet none of these themes appeared in official statements prior to March. Even more striking: No senior officials, not even on background, appear to have repeated the earlier warnings about the risks of striking Iran.
On March 25, Obama told reporters, “I believe there is a window of time to solve this diplomatically, but that window is closing.” He repeated that theme in a speech the next day at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
Panetta has also struck a different chord since March. Although he has continued to urge caution about using force, he no longer dwells on the many risks. “This is about making very clear that they are never going to be able to get an atomic weapon,” he has said. “We have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen.” He has also gone out of his way to avoid criticizing bellicose Israeli statements, as in his July 30 response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harsh words on Iran: “We respect [Israel’s] sovereignty and their ability to make decisions with regard to their own security.”
Meanwhile, top media outlets no longer focus on the U.S. military leadership’s opposition to preemption, instead reporting on preparations for a potential conflict. The U.S. Navy has stepped up its activities in the Persian Gulf of late, maintaining a near-continuous presence with two aircraft carrier battle groups and making additional preparations for Iranian naval guerrilla war. Reinforcing the tougher tone were New York Times and Washington Post reports about U.S. sponsorship (with considerable direct presidential involvement) of the Stuxnet and Flame cyber attacks on Iran.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that tougher U.S. statements have had much impact on Iran’s willingness to compromise on its nuclear program. Part of the problem may be credibility: The past several U.S. presidents have been quick to describe certain scenarios as “unacceptable,” only to do little about them when they came to pass. Given Washington’s reactions to nuclear tests by North Korea, Pakistan, and India, Iranian leaders may well believe that harsh U.S. rhetoric about prevention and “closing diplomatic windows” does not reflect what the United States will actually do.
Nor is it clear how much U.S. statements have influenced the Israeli debate about unilateral preemption. U.S. policymakers often fail to appreciate how deeply Israelis mistrust the notion of relying on foreign security guarantees. A formative experience for Israeli security came in June 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson refused to honor his predecessor’s explicit, written pledge guaranteeing security of navigation through the Straits of Tiran — a promise that had been central to Israel’s agreement to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in 1957. That episode reinforced the state’s founding principle: that the Jewish people can never rely on others to protect them. For many Israelis, this principle is the single most important guide to foreign policy.
For the most part, Democrats and Republicans no longer show much difference when it comes to Iran policy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s July 29 Jerusalem speech essentially repeated Obama’s toughest themes on the subject. And on Aug. 9, the Senate and House gave near-unanimous approval to the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, the latest law aimed at toughening sanctions on Tehran.
Despite that near-consensus at home, it is difficult to send a tough message abroad during an election campaign, when a certain skepticism is warranted about whether presidential statements are aimed at the home audience rather than accurately reflecting what policy will be after the election. One way to address this problem is for the administration to ask its nervous allies (Israel and the Gulf monarchies) what U.S. steps would best allay their concerns about Washington following through. Policymakers should also remain disciplined about staying on message — nine tough statements plus one off-the-cuff equivocation equals an ambiguous policy, not a “90 percent tough” one.
Perhaps the most productive approach until November is for Washington to concentrate on steps that can slow Iran’s nuclear progress, be it through unacknowledged actions or vigorous sanctions enforcement.