Question: So, is Israel going to attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the presidential election on November 6?
Answer: Maybe. But probably not. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak would have ordered a strike already if not for the determined opposition of President Obama. That opposition is undiminished. And Netanyahu and Barak may now be thinking that holding off -- agreeing to Obama's wishes, in other words -- may buy them some favor with the President, should he be reelected.This runs counter to an earlier belief, that an Israeli attack before the election would put Obama in a box, that he would have to support Israel for fear of alienating its supporters in America.
Question: Was Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey straying from the Administration script when he said last week he doesn't want to appear to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran?
Answer: The U.S. military has a very difficult job in the Persian Gulf. It must be ready for any sort of Iranian provocation (including attempts to shut down the Strait of Hormuz) but it does not want to appear overly aggressive to the Iranians, for fear of provoking them unnecessarily. Until the commander-in-chief orders the military to take offensive action against Iran, this is going to be the posture, a combination of vigilance and non-aggressiveness. Therefore, it is not unnatural that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would want to signal that, if Israel takes action in the very near future, it won't be with the assistance of the U.S.
I do think the use of the word "complicit," with its sinister air, was not the word the White House would want to see used, in part because it made the Israelis unnecessarily nervous, and therefore, in one interpretation, more likely to strike. Martin Indyk, of the Brookings Institution, and formerly the American ambassador to Israel, agrees with this. He wrote in an e-mail, "I don't think Dempsey was scripted. The White House would never have agreed to his use of the word 'complicit.' (Indyk also argued that Netanyahu is "not going against the will of the President if only because the day after he pulls the trigger he's going to be calling Obama to help manage the aftermath. And by backing down he incurs an obligation from Obama even if he doesn't get the 'red line' declaration he is hoping for.")
Question: The Administration just placed a story in The New York Times suggesting that Obama understands Netanyahu's anxiety and so is ramping-up sanctions enforcement, and is considering issuing red lines Iran shouldn't dare cross. Does this signal a victory for Netanyahu?
Answer: A provisional victory, yes. This story came about in part because of Dempsey's off-script comments. And in part because Netanyahu apparently raised his voice at the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, in a meeting last week, accusing Obama of lacking urgency and clarity on the matter.
But these new promises from the Obama Administration would have come about anyway, maybe by the time Obama and Netanyahu meet in New York at the United Nations General Assembly. No one in the world has done more to focus attention on the dangers of Iran's nuclear program than Netanyahu, and I've met many people in the American government who are privately thankful he pushed the international community to its (relatively) strong position. As Nicholas Burns, the former undersecretary of state, told me recently, "Netanyahu has made the threat of force credible and that's not a bad thing for us. We don't want to the Iranians to think we're paper tigers, and Netanyahu has played a useful role in this." (It's worth noting no current American official, or Burns, wants to see an Israeli strike anytime in the near future.)
Some people, including Haaretz's Amos Harel, believe that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand. It doesn't seem that way to me. It's important to stress, however, that unless and until the White House formulates actual red lines, Netanyahu will not sleep easily. And some of the items discussed in The Times' article aren't actually designed to make the Israelis think that the Americans are toughening-up. For instance, the installation of new radar systems in Qatar, as promised by the White House, could be seen as having more to do with containing Iran than stopping its nuclear program (and Obama is on record, of course, ruling out containment).
Question: Are you saying it is only Netanyahu who is keeping this issue on Obama's foreign policy agenda?
Answer: Oh, come on, you know me better than that. I believe that Obama would use force to keep Iran from gaining a nuclear device. I think he's made that abundantly clear. And I think he's made it clear that he believes, as he told me, that a nuclear Iran would represent a profound national security threat to the United States.
Question: According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is moving more and more centrifuges to the underground, and highly fortified, Fordow site. Didn't Ehud Barak mean exactly this when he said that Iran is entering a "zone of immunity," which is to say, the point at which Israeli bombs couldn't reach the centrifuges anymore?
Answer: The only thing more important to Ehud Barak (apart from Ehud Barak) than shutting down the Fordow facility is keeping Israel (and himself) on the right side of the American president, and the American people. More than Netanyahu, he is worried about the fallout from an Israeli attack, specifically, attacks directed by Iran against American troops and installations. Though Barak also believes that Iran would most likely make the calculation that it can't afford to strike at America in the wake of an Israeli attack, because the U.S., unlike Israel, has sufficient military power to threaten the security of the regime. Barak is probably correct in this analysis, but it's not a sure thing.
Question: Are you saying that Barak is more cautious than Netanyahu?
No, not necessarily. Contrary to the opinion of some people in Israel, neither man is crazy. They understand the consequences of launching, and of not launching. Barak has a better understanding of the tactical and strategic consequences of launching an attack (and the consequences of not launching an attack) and Netanyahu is gripped by the historical consequences of a nuclear Iran. But Netanyahu also has political considerations restraining him. Indyk: "Bibi is facing his own election, probably early next year, and he cannot know what the Israeli public reaction will be to the potential for 500 civilian casualties, capital flight, Tel Aviv under rocket attack, Ben Gurion closed down, etc. He is not a gambler with his own political fate."
Question: If the Israelis don't attack before November 6, will they ever attack?
Answer: Maybe, or maybe not. The Atlantic War Dial, which reflects the thinking of 22 experts on the issue (including yours truly), puts the chance of an Israeli, or American, attack in the next year at 40 percent. I've been going back and forth on Twitter with Laura Rozen, who argues that if the Israelis were to do this, they would have to do it immediately after November 6, because weather conditions wouldn't permit a surprise attack (yes, I know, this is the most discussed surprise attack in history) in the winter months. What is true is that we don't know more than we know -- we don't even know if Ehud Barak secretly believes that it is too late for an Israeli preventive strike, given developments at Fordow.
Question: How bad would it actually be if Iran got a nuclear weapon?
Answer: Very bad. It would be very bad for the United States and its Arab allies (see this post for President Obama's statements on why this is so) and it would be exceedingly bad for Israel. The Iranian leadership has expressed openly its genocidal intentions toward Israel, and is developing the means through which it could carry out such a genocide. (I write about the need to take genocidal threats seriously in this Bloomberg View column.) Given the history of genocidal threats against Jews (a distressing number of which have actually led to attempts at extermination), it is better to err on the side of caution, and assume that the Iranian leadership means what it says when it says it would like to rid the world of Israel.
UPDATE: It turns out there are more questions! Always more questions! Matt Duss, via Twitter, raised the question of whether Netanyahu's hesitancy has more to do with Obama's opposition to an Israeli strike, or more to do with internal Israeli opposition -- ex-security chiefs and the like. I think that Bibi understands the opposition in the security services (the ex-heads don't worry him as much), but I think he understands that much of the opposition in the security services has to do with fears about how an Israeli strike will affect Israel's relations with America. These are people -- in the army, the Mossad, etc. -- who are in regular contact with their American interlocutors (the Israeli army chief, Benny Gantz, is apparently on the phone with Gen. Dempsey on an almost weekly basis) and who have internalized American anxieties, and also understand the paramount importance to Israel of American support.