The Path To War

From peaceful outreach to pledge of conflict. Inside Barack Obama's struggle to stop an Iranian nuke

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Pete Souza / The White House

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Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once defined diplomacy as "saying 'Nice doggy, nice doggy' until you can find a stick." Through luck and hard work, Obama has bought time for a massive buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf. General James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, began accelerating the U.S. military increase in the Gulf a year ago. In April, the Air Force deployed a squadron of F-22 stealth fighters to a base in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Navy has doubled the number of its minesweeping ships from four to eight and of its patrol boats from five to 10 in the past two years. It has deployed combat search-and-rescue helicopters, unmanned minesweeping submarines and high-tech surveillance systems. Most threatening, it dispatched to the Persian Gulf a second aircraft-carrier battle group that had been destined for the Pacific.

The U.S. is also building up other forces in the region. In early 2012, it expanded a military base in Kuwait, stationing two Army infantry brigades, or 15,000 troops, there. That is still a token force, but the U.S. is pre-positioning covert and special-operations capabilities and beefing up facility defenses. It has been operating a drone base out of Saudi Arabia. In July 2012, it deployed the U.S.S. Ponce, a converted transport ship that can serve as a floating special-operations base, complete with helicopter pads and several hundred bunk beds. It has delivered long-range X-band missile-defense radars to Israel and Turkey and has reached an agreement with Qatar to deploy a system there too. The U.S. has reportedly asked the U.K. for access to bases on Cyprus, Diego Garcia and Ascension Island for use in an attack on Iran.

Iran, too, has taken preparatory actions, erecting new perimeter fences around its underground enrichment plant at Qum. It recently launched its own cyberattack against the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, and has collaborated with Hizballah in Syria during its unrest. Yemeni officials recently claimed that Iran has been providing non--state actors in Yemen with shoulder-launched missiles capable of taking down commercial airliners. In total, the Gulf has seen in two years the largest military buildup since March 2003.

Netanyahu, who faces new political challenges at home, has rolled Israel's deadline back to late spring or early summer, and recent reports say Israeli intelligence thinks Tehran may be on an even longer fuse. The well-regarded U.S. think tank the Institute for Science and International Security says the earliest Iran could get the Bomb is mid-2014. Experts credit the cyberattacks with significantly setting back Iran's nuclear program. And Iran itself has slowed down its efforts, converting some enriched uranium to a form that can be used only in research, not in weapons, thereby keeping its total enriched uranium under the amount needed to make a nuclear weapon. To make up for the drop in Iranian oil exports and a possible rise in crude prices, Saudi Arabia has stepped up production.

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