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.