Middle East September 2010

The Point of No Return

For the Obama administration, the prospect of a nuclearized Iran is dismal to contemplate— it would create major new national-security challenges and crush the president’s dream of ending nuclear proliferation. But the view from Jerusalem is still more dire: a nuclearized Iran represents, among other things, a threat to Israel’s very existence. In the gap between Washington’s and Jerusalem’s views of Iran lies the question: who, if anyone, will stop Iran before it goes nuclear, and how? As Washington and Jerusalem study each other intensely, here’s an inside look at the strategic calculations on both sides—and at how, if things remain on the current course, an Israeli air strike will unfold.

One Monday evening in early summer, I sat in the office of the decidedly non-goyishe Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and listened to several National Security Council officials he had gathered at his conference table explain—in so many words—why the Jewish state should trust the non-Jewish president of the United States to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

“The expression ‘All options are on the table’ means that all options are on the table,” Emanuel told me before the meeting, in a tone meant to suggest both resolve and irritation at those who believe the president lacks such resolve. The group interview he had arranged was a kind of rolling seminar on the challenges Iran poses; half a dozen officials made variations of the same argument: that President Obama spends more time talking with foreign leaders on Iran than on any other subject.

One of those at the table, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser who served as the lead author of the recent “National Security Strategy for the United States” as well as of the president’s conciliatory Cairo speech, suggested that Iran’s nuclear program was a clear threat to American security, and that the Obama administration responds to national-security threats in the manner of other administrations. “We are coordinating a multifaceted strategy to increase pressure on Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’ve removed any option from the table,” Rhodes said. “This president has shown again and again that when he believes it is necessary to use force to protect American national-security interests, he has done so. We’re not going to address hypotheticals about when and if we would use military force, but I think we’ve made it clear that we aren’t removing the option of force from any situation in which our national security is affected.”

There was an intermittently prickly quality to this meeting, and not only because it was hosted by Emanuel, whose default state is exasperation. For more than a year, these White House officials have parried the charge that their president is unwilling to face the potential consequences of a nuclear Iran, and they are frustrated by what they believe to be a caricature of his position. (A former Bush administration official told me that his president faced the opposite problem: Bush, bogged down by two wars and believing that Iran wasn’t that close to crossing the nuclear threshold, opposed the use of force against Iran’s program, and made his view clear, “but no one believed him.”)

At one point, I put forward the idea that for abundantly obvious reasons, few people would believe Barack Obama would open up a third front in the greater Middle East. One of the officials responded heatedly, “What have we done that would allow you to reach the conclusion that we think that a nuclear Iran would represent a tolerable situation?”

It is undeniably true, however, that the administration has appeared on occasion less than stalwart on the issue. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has criticized Obama as a purveyor of baseless hope. At the UN Security Council last September, Sarkozy said, “I support the extended hand of the Americans, but what good have proposals for dialogue brought the international community? More uranium enrichment and declarations by the leaders of Iran to wipe a UN member state off the map,” he said, referring to Israel.

Obama administration officials, particularly in the Pentagon, have several times signaled unhappiness at the possibility of military preemption. In April, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, told reporters that military force against Iran was “off the table in the near term.” She later backtracked, but Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also criticized the idea of attacking Iran. “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome,” he said in April. “In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that.”

The gathering in Emanuel’s office was meant to communicate a number of clear messages to me, including one that was more militant than that delivered by Admiral Mullen: President Obama has by no means ruled out counterproliferation by force. The meeting was also meant to communicate that Obama’s outreach to the Iranians was motivated not by naïveté, but by a desire to test Tehran’s intentions in a deliberate fashion; that the president understands that an Iranian bomb would spur a regional arms race that could destroy his antiproliferation program; and that American and Israeli assessments of Iran’s nuclear program are synchronized in ways they were not before. One official at the table, Gary Samore, the National Security Council official who oversees the administration’s counterproliferation agenda, told me that the Israelis agree with American assessments that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is plagued with problems.

“The most essential measure of nuclear-weapons capability is how quickly they can build weapons-grade material, and from that standpoint we can measure, based on the IAEA reports, that the Iranians are not doing well,” Samore said. “The particular centrifuge machines they’re running are based on an inferior technology. They are running into some technical difficulties, partly because of the work we’ve done to deny them access to foreign components. When they make the parts themselves, they are making parts that don’t have quality control.” (When I mentioned this comment to a senior Israeli official, he said, “We agree with this American assessment, but we also agree with Secretary Gates that Iran is one year away from crossing the nuclear threshold.”)

Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator who is currently a senior National Security Council official, said during the meeting that he believes the Israelis now understand that American-instigated measures have slowed Iran’s progress, and that the administration is working to convince the Israelis—and other parties in the region—that the sanctions strategy “has a chance of working.”

“The president has said he hasn’t taken any options off the table, but let’s take a look at why we think this strategy could work,” he said. “We have interesting data points over the past year, about Iran trying to deflect pressure when they thought that pressure was coming, which suggests that their ability to calculate costs and benefits is quite real. Last June, when they hadn’t responded to our bilateral outreach, the president said that we would take stock by September. Two weeks before the G-20”—a meeting of the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies—“the Iranians said they would talk, after having resisted talking until that point. They didn’t do it because suddenly they saw the light; they did it because pressure was coming. They’re able to think about what matters to them.”

Ross went on to argue that the sanctions Iran now faces may affect the regime’s thinking. “The sanctions are going to cut across the board. They are taking place in the context of Iranian mismanagement—the Iranians are going to have to cut [food and fuel] subsidies; they already have public alienation; they have division in the elites, and between the elites and the rest of the country. They are looking at the costs of trying to maintain control over a disaffected public. They wanted to head off sanctions because they knew that sanctions would be a problem. There is real potential here to affect their calculus. We’re pursuing a path right now that has some potential. It doesn’t mean you don’t think about everything else, but we’re on a path.”

One question no administration official seems eager to answer is this: what will the United States do if sanctions fail? Several Arab officials complained to me that the Obama administration has not communicated its intentions to them, even generally. No Arab officials I spoke with appeared to believe that the administration understands the regional ambitions of their Persian adversary. One Arab foreign minister told me that he believes Iran is taking advantage of Obama’s “reasonableness.”

“Obama’s voters like it when the administration shows that it doesn’t want to fight Iran, but this is not a domestic political issue,” the foreign minister said. “Iran will continue on this reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably. The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran. We have to know the president’s intentions on this matter. We are his allies.” (According to two administration sources, this issue caused tension between President Obama and his recently dismissed director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair. According to these sources, Blair, who was said to put great emphasis on the Iranian threat, told the president that America’s Arab allies needed more reassurance. Obama reportedly did not appreciate the advice.)

In Israel, of course, officials expend enormous amounts of energy to understand President Obama, despite the assurances they have received from Emanuel, Ross, and others. Delegations from Netanyahu’s bureau, from the defense and foreign ministries, and from the Israeli intelligence community have been arriving in Washington lately with great regularity. “We pack our thermometers and go to Washington and take everyone’s temperature,” one Israeli official told me.

The increased tempo of these visits is only one sign of deepening contacts between Israel and America, as Iran moves closer to nuclear breakout: the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, is said to speak now with his American counterpart, Admiral Mullen, regularly. Mullen recently made a stop in Israel that had one main purpose, according to an Israeli source: “to make sure we didn’t do anything in Iran before they thought we might do something in Iran.”

Not long ago, the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, paid a secret visit to Chicago to meet with Lester Crown, the billionaire whose family owns a significant portion of General Dynamics, the military contractor. Crown is one of Israel’s most prominent backers in the American Jewish community, and was one of Barack Obama’s earliest and most steadfast supporters. According to sources in America and Israel, General Yadlin asked Crown to communicate Israel’s existential worries directly to President Obama. When I reached Crown by phone, he confirmed that he had met with Yadlin, but denied that the general traveled to Chicago to deliver this message. “Maybe he has a cousin in Chicago or something,” Crown said. But he did say that Yadlin discussed with him the “Iranian clock”—the time remaining before Iran reached nuclear capability—and that he agreed with Yadlin that the United States must stop Iran before it goes nuclear. “I share with the Israelis the feeling that we certainly have the military capability and that we have to have the will to use it. The rise of Iran is not in the best interest of the U.S.

“I support the president,” Crown said. “But I wish [administration officials] were a little more outgoing in the way they have talked. I would feel more comfortable if I knew that they had the will to use military force, as a last resort. You cannot threaten someone as a bluff. There has to be a will to do it.”

On my last visit to Israel, I was asked almost a dozen times by senior officials and retired generals if I could explain Barack Obama and his feelings about Israel. Several officials even asked if I considered Obama to be an anti-Semite. I answered this question by quoting Abner Mikva, the former congressman, federal judge, and mentor to Obama, who famously said in 2008, “I think when this is all over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” I explained that Obama has been saturated with the work of Jewish writers, legal scholars, and thinkers, and that a large number of his friends, supporters, and aides are Jewish. But philo-Semitism does not necessarily equal sympathy for Netanyahu’s Likud Party—certainly not among American Jews, who are, like the president they voted for in overwhelming numbers, generally supportive of a two-state solution, and dubious about Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

When I made these points to one senior Israeli official, he said: “This is the problem. If he is a J Street Jew, we are in trouble.” J Street is the liberal pro-Israel organization established to counter the influence of AIPAC and other groups. “We’re worried that he thinks like the liberal American Jews who say, ‘If we remove some settlements, then the extremist problem and the Iran problem go away.’”

Rahm Emanuel suggested that the administration is trying to thread a needle: providing “unshakeable” support for Israel; protecting it from the consequences of an Iranian nuclear bomb; but pushing it toward compromise with the Palestinians. Emanuel, in our meeting, disputed that Israel is incapable of moving forward on the peace process so long as Iran looms as an existential threat. And he drafted the past six Israeli prime ministers—including Netanyahu, who during his first term in the late 1990s, to his father’s chagrin, compromised with the Palestinians—to buttress his case. “Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, Olmert—every one of them pursued some form of a negotiated settlement, which would have been in Israel’s own strategic interest,” he said. “There have been plenty of other threats while successive Israeli governments have pursued a peace process. There is no doubt that Iran is a major threat, but they didn’t just flip the switch on [the nuclear program] a year ago.”

Emanuel had one more message to deliver: for the most practical of reasons, Israel should consider carefully whether a military strike would be worth the trouble it would unleash. “I’m not sure that given the time line, whatever the time line is, that whatever they did, they wouldn’t stop” the nuclear program, he said. “They would be postponing.”

It was then that I realized that, on some subjects, the Israelis and Americans are still talking past each other. The Americans consider a temporary postponement of Iran’s nuclear program to be of dubious value. The Israelis don’t. “When Menachem Begin bombed Osirak [in Iraq], he had been told that his actions would set back the Iraqis one year,” one cabinet minister told me. “He did it anyway.”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In