An open disagreement between Israel and the Pentagon in recent weeks has highlighted the dilemma President Barack Obama faces in making progress on Iran. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday poured cold water on last week's suggestion by Israeli Prime Minister that the only way Iran can be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons is for the U.S. to threaten military action. Military action, Gates warned, would solve nothing; in fact it would be more likely to drive Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu had warned, during a visit to the U.S., that "economic sanctions are making it difficult for Iran, but there is no sign that the Ayatullah regime plans to stop its nuclear program because of them." The Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had told Vice-President Joe Biden, "The only way to ensure that Iran will not go nuclear is to create a credible threat of military action against it if it doesn't cease its race for a nuclear weapon."
Gates, however, turned Netanyahu's argument on its head, warning that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would provide only a "short term solution," setting the Iranians back two or three years. But any military strike would "bring together a divided nation [and] make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons" via programs that would simply "go deeper and more covert." Instead, Gates argued, "The only long-term solution to avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it's not in their interest."
Gates is more confident in the effect of sanctions than Netanyahu is, although the Israeli leader's warning that those measures would not change Iran's calculus any time soon appears to be borne out by the defiant pose struck by Tehran ahead of new talks with the Western powers, China and Russia scheduled for the first week of December. Iran has made clear that its "nuclear rights" by which it means its enrichment of uranium for energy purposes, which the U.S. and its allies hope to stop because it gives the Iranians the means to produce bomb materiel are not up for discussion.
The Iranians see the purpose of the talks as reviving the troubled fuel-swap deal whose first iteration, a year ago, was rejected by Tehran after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had initially embraced it; and whose second iteration, brokered with Iran by Brazil and Turkey last April, was rejected by the U.S. and its allies. The Iranians say they're ready to renegotiate that confidence-building deal, and appear likely to offer to stop enriching uranium to 20% the level required to fuel the medical research reactor at the heart of the deal, but far closer to weapons grade levels than the 3.5% required for energy purposes. But some in the Western camp are leery of any deal that could legitimize Iran's ongoing enrichment to 3.5% in defiance of a suspension order by the U.N. Security Council pending the resolution of transparency issues. Iran appears to be entering the talks with its arms folded on that score.
Gates' implicit rebuke of Netanyahu will be quickly smoothed over. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Wednesday hosted his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, at the Pentagon, where the two agreed that the U.S. strategy for now is focused on "dialogue and engagement and sanctions," as Mullen put it, and that strategy will be given more time, although "all options" would be kept on the table. Still, the not-so-subtle message in Gates' comments seemed to be that there is no military option worth taking.
The plausibility and wisdom of threatening military action is only one of the areas in which the U.S. and its allies appear to lack consensus on the eve of the next round of talks with Iran. It's not clear whether they'll seek to resurrect the fuel-swap deal as a confidence-builder separate from other issues, or insist that any deal include Iran's compliance with the Security Council's suspension order. More importantly, perhaps, the U.S. and its allies have not established a consensus among themselves on what would be an acceptable diplomatic solution. Over and above the disclosure requirements that prompted the suspension demand, the Obama Administration has not changed the Bush Administration's demand that Iran relinquish its right to enrich uranium (as codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) even for peaceful purposes under international monitoring, on the grounds that it can't be trusted not to put that technology to use for a covert weapons program. Needless to say, that demand is a non-starter for Iran, but it is not backed by Russia or China, and many Western officials have questioned the viability of demanding it, now that uranium enrichment in Iran is a fait accompli.
Absent negotiations and any signal of cooperation from Iran, the U.S. and its allies have not felt pressure to resolve their own differences. Nor are they moved by alarmist ticking-clock scenarios the U.S. intelligence consensus is that while Iran is acquiring the means to build nuclear weapons, it has not begun work on a weapons program or even taken a decision to do so. Getting to nuclear weapons status would still take years in which Iran could not disguise its intent. Resolving the current standoff, however, faces major obstacles.
Gates warns that the Iranians' decision-making on the issue will be based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. He argues that preventing Iran from going nuclear will therefore require convincing the regime that nuclear weapons are unecessary to its survival, and actually threaten its prospects by cutting off access to the world economy. At the same time, however, the fact that nuclear talks with the West remain a political football within Iran's ferocious internal power struggle is a sign that Tehran is not feeling the sort of imminent sense of crisis that might focus their minds on seeking a compromise.
Domestic politics on the U.S. side could prove to equally troublesome to the diplomatic effort whose success requires resolving differences over what to demand of Iran and the patience and willingness to make concessions that an embattled President Obama may find difficult in the post-mid-term environment. Secretary Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, can speak more bluntly. After all, he's retiring next year.