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The wrong signals to Iran

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IRAN HAS BEEN showing signs of increasing nervousness about the possibility that its nuclear program will come under attack by Israel or the United States. From the West’s point of view, this alarm is good: The more Iran worries about a military attack, the more likely it is to scale back its nuclear activity. The only occasion in which Tehran froze its weaponization program came immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when it feared it might be the next American target. That’s why the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, regularly repeats that “all options are on the table.”

What doesn’t make sense is a public spelling out of reasons against military action — like that delivered by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Friday before a U.S.-Israeli conference in Washington. Mr. Panetta said that a strike would “at best” slow down Iran’s program for “maybe one, possibly two years”; that “some of those targets are very difficult to get at”; that a now-isolated regime would be able to “reestablish itself” in the region; that the United States would be the target of Iranian retaliation; and that the global economy would be damaged.

Some of Mr. Panetta’s assumptions are debatable: For example, would Arab states — many of which have been quietly hoping for a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran — really rally behind a regime they regard as a deadly enemy? And if bombing destroyed thousands of Iranian centrifuges, which are manufactured from materials Tehran cannot easily acquire, would it really be so simple to rebuild?

But even if every point were true, there is no reason for the defense secretary to spell out such views in public. No doubt President Obama and the Israeli defense ministry are well aware of the Pentagon’s views, but alarmed Iranian leaders could well conclude that they have no reason for concern after all.

The public disparaging of the force option is not the administration’s only waffling signal to Tehran. Though Mr. Obama boasted Thursday that his administration has orchestrated “the toughest sanctions that Iran has ever experienced,” he is resisting pressure from allies such as France and from Congress to sanction the Iranian central bank. Last week the Senate passed 100-0 an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would sanction foreign banks that conduct transactions with the Iranian central bank, with an option for a postponement if the White House determines that the effect on the oil market would be too severe. The administration opposed the measure and is trying to narrow its scope in a conference committee.

Officials say they worry about the damage such sanctions could cause to the economy or to relations with allies such as South Korea and Japan. Iran, they argue, could end up benefiting if oil prices spike. While these are not unreasonable concerns, the administration’s stance resembles Mr. Panetta’s message. In effect, it is signaling that it is determined to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon — unless it means taking military or diplomatic risks, or paying an economic price.

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