Can Obama's Mideast Strategy Survive a Strike Against Iran?

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 26, 2009

President Obama's national security aides are struggling to conclude a strategic review of U.S. policy toward Iran. The review is certain to be comprehensive, imaginative -- and largely silent to irrelevant on the most difficult choices about Iran that Obama will face over the next year or two.

The review cannot be completed until Obama has what may be his toughest meeting yet with a foreign leader. That Oval Office session with Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's newly elected prime minister, will come in mid-May. Netanyahu's impressions of Obama's intentions on Iran will determine war-or-peace choices for the Middle East.

The survey of American options on Iran forms a major part of the sprint that the president and his advisers have made toward the 100-day milestone they will reach on Wednesday.They have authored strategic reviews on Afghanistan and Iraq, dispatched special envoys to urgent trouble spots, and invited Middle East leaders to the White House to keep that region's flickering peace hopes alive.

Obama has already offered diplomatic engagement to Iran without preconditions -- making Tehran's behavior, not Washington's conduct, the dominant issue for international opinion. The policy adjustments have been necessary and adroitly handled.

But they have also stirred doubts in Israel's untested and politically heterogeneous government about Obama's commitment to Israel's security, as Netanyahu defines it. These misgivings create a queasiness between the two allies that cannot be publicly discussed by either without damaging political consequences.

So even after the Iran review is completed, don't expect it to deal forthrightly (or perhaps at all) with this core question: Can Obama's hopes for Middle East peace and fruitful negotiations with Iran survive an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear program, perhaps as early as the first half of 2010?

The likelihood of that strike has been growing since it became clear in the final months of the Bush administration that the United States would not undertake such action itself. I draw this conclusion from a series of not-for-attribution conversations with American, Asian, European and Middle East diplomats, and other officials and analysts, conducted since Obama's inauguration.

There are serious arguments on the other side, beginning with doubts about Israel's ability to identify, reach and destroy all of Iran's bomb-building capabilities. There is also a widespread belief that not even the hawkish Netanyahu would risk the rupture with the United States and the fury of the Arab street that an Israeli attack on Islamic Iran could bring.

"The Israelis who have to decide this thing will find these arguments very familiar," said a former ambassador to Israel from a developing country. "They are precisely the arguments used in 1981 to say Israel could not and should not disable Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in Iraq before that happened. They are arguments that could have been used against striking the North Korean reactor in Syria last year. And yet, it did not turn out that way at all in either case."

Asked whether Israeli warplanes had the range to fly around Arab-controlled airspace to hit Iran, a European official replied: "You might think not, unless you noticed the emphasis being put on Israel's in-air refueling capacity in its recent military exercises. In any event, Arab air defenses have never been a problem for Israel."

Israel sounded out the Bush White House nearly a year ago on flying across Iraq to hit Iran. George W. Bush discouraged what was a probe of U.S. attitudes rather than a serious request for a specific mission that was being planned. "But we did not say the answer would always be no. And we did not say we would shoot Israeli planes down if they came," a former U.S. official says.

The nightmare scenario for Obama is that Israel launches an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities that is largely unsuccessful but that provokes an Iranian missile retaliation against Israel and all-out guerrilla campaigns by Hamas and Hezbollah. Could any U.S. president, however angry, turn his back on Israel in that situation? What would happen to the U.S. mediation efforts Obama promised King Abdullah II of Jordan in their White House meeting last week?

Battle plans famously don't survive an army's first encounter with the enemy. Strategic reviews are works of intellectual cogency until they are broadsided by reality. There are so many moving parts to the Iranian dilemma that the White House is considering not issuing a formal document to reflect its findings. Such reticence will be tacit acknowledgment that the true test of Obama's Iran policies will come when events that are foreseeable -- but currently unspeakable -- occur.

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