Most observers have spent the past few months trying desperately to interpret the mixed signals emanating from the Obama administration on Iran. It has escalated its rhetoric against Iran’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time continued to shy away from actions that might actually stop Tehran, such as the tough sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank that would set in motion a partial oil embargo. Yet, while American diplomats travel the globe trying to corral other nations to support sanctions on Iran, American leaders have been open about their unwillingness to contemplate the use of force and horror at the thought Israel will act on its own.
The latest such contradictory signal comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius his biggest worry is the Israelis will take care of the problem for him:
Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the United States could then stop them militarily.
Ignatius goes on to say Obama and Panetta have told the Israelis not to strike, because they think it will “derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold.”
Anyone wondering why the Israelis seem to be moving closer to deciding to attack on their own need only read that statement. The Israelis — and the Iranians — know the current sanctions program is nowhere close to stopping Iran. That is because Obama has not only hesitated to put the stringent sanctions recently passed by Congress (over his objections) into effect but also has never forced the Treasury Department to enforce the existing far weaker measures aimed at Iran.
Though Israel knows it cannot do the job of setting back Iran’s nuclear program as well as the United States can, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak may have arrived at the same conclusion their Iranian enemies have come to in the last three years: Barack Obama is too weak and indecisive to be taken seriously when he threatens Iran. That means the only alternative to sitting back and waiting patiently as the Iranians run out the diplomatic clock on a feckless Washington-led effort to restrain them, is for Israel to strike.
Clearly, the administration’s preference is for the Israelis to be sufficiently cowed by U.S. pressure into standing down. Obama and Panetta would like Netanyahu to believe the U.S. would cut off the Israelis the way the Eisenhower administration did in 1956 when it abandoned Israel during the Sinai Campaign. But, as Ignatius points out, an open breach with Israel during an election year would be political suicide for Obama.
So rather than take responsibility for dealing with a problem that threatens the peace of the world, once again the Obama administration is trying to lead from behind. Except this time it isn’t hiding behind France as it did in Libya but behind tiny Israel, who will face the risks of Iranian counter-attacks alone and under the threat of being cut off by its own ally. It is unlikely Israel can be convinced to back off by vague American promises of more negotiations or stepped up covert attacks. Neither plan offers much hope of success. That is why the Israelis may be on the verge of deciding to strike on their own.
Under these circumstances, Ignatius is right that Israel’s leaders probably feel they are better off on their own in this enterprise rather than being shackled by Obama. But with Iran once again vowing to destroy Israel, Netanyahu and Barak realize allowing Ayatollah Khamenei to have his finger on a nuclear trigger simply cannot be tolerated.