By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Analysts speculate about the danger of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran before the Bush administration departs office next January. But if you read the tea leaves carefully, the evidence is actually pointing in the opposite direction.
One sign that the diplomatic track is dominant for now is that the administration plans to announce late this month that it will open an interest section in Tehran, a senior official disclosed Thursday. This will be an important symbol, as it will be the first American diplomatic mission in Iran since the U.S. Embassy there was seized in 1979. The official described it as an effort to "reach out to the Iranian people." The Iranian government has long had an interest section in Washington.
The administration's wariness of military options is also clear from recent efforts to dissuade Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, traveled to Israel in early June; he was followed in late June by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both officials explained to their Israeli counterparts why the United States believes an attack isn't necessary now, because the Iranians can't yet build a nuclear weapon, and why an attack would damage U.S. national interests.
McConnell and Mullen also informed the Israelis that the United States would oppose overflights of Iraqi airspace to attack Iran, an administration official said. The United States has reassured the Iraqi government that it would not approve Israeli overflights, after the Iraqis strongly protested any potential violation of their sovereignty.
"We have made our position abundantly clear to the Israelis and indeed to the world, not just in our public statements but in our private conversations, as well," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Though the administration has often been portrayed as divided over military options against Iran, an official denied there are now any sharp rifts. "There is uniformity across the U.S. government about the way to proceed with Iran," the official said. "Everyone from this White House, including the vice president's office, is in agreement that the military option is not the best option at this point, and we should pursue diplomatic and economic pressures."
U.S. opposition to an Israeli military strike now is based on four factors, the official said. First, a strike would retard the Iranian nuclear program without destroying it. (One intelligence estimate is that an attack would delay the Iranians by just two months to two years.) Second, a strike would rally support for the unpopular government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he faces growing economic difficulty. Third, an attack would undermine U.S. policy in Iraq, when the United States appears to be making some progress, and in Afghanistan. And, finally, a strike against Iran, as with any military action, would have unpredictable consequences.
In evaluating the Iranian nuclear threat, the United States and Israel are using different intelligence. U.S. analysts believe Iran can't produce a bomb before the end of 2009 and probably not until the 2010--2015 time frame, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. The Israelis, however, fear that Iran could enrich enough uranium for a weapon sometime next year. By late 2009, the Israelis warn, the Iranians could produce the 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that could quickly be converted to the 25 kilos of highly enriched fuel needed for a bomb.
Reassuring the Israelis of U.S. resolve toward Iran will be a tricky challenge for the next administration. A pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has already tried to lock in a consensus policy through a high-level task force that included advisers to both presidential campaigns.
The June 2008 report of the institute advocated "preventive military action" against Iran and warned: "An American commitment to deterrence, especially if seen by Israelis as a substitute for prevention, is itself likely to spur Israel to consider independent action." Among the signatories were Anthony Lake and Susan Rice, senior advisers in the Obama campaign, even though Obama is nominally committed to seeking diplomatic talks with Iran.
The crunch on the Iranian nuclear issue will come next year, when there are new governments in Israel and the United States -- and a volatile presidential election scheduled in Iran. For now the United States and its allies, including Israel, seem willing to pursue the diplomatic track. But if that doesn't work -- and there are no signs yet that Tehran is willing to bend -- all the deadly options will remain on the table.