US President Barack Obama 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque )
- The Obama administration does not know Israel's intentions regarding
potential military action against Iran, and the uncertainty is stoking
concern in Washington, where the preferred course for now is sanctions
and diplomatic pressure.
Although Israel remains one of the
United States' closest allies and the two countries' officials are in
regular contact, US officials have a "sense of opacity" regarding what
might prompt an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, and
about when such an attack might occur, according to a senior US national
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Two key US senators acknowledged on Tuesday that there are gaps in US knowledge about Israeli leaders' thinking and intentions.
don't think the administration knows what Israel is going to do. I'm
not sure Israel knows what Israel is going to do ... That's why they
want to keep the other guys guessing. Keep the bad guys guessing," said
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the
committee, echoed Levin's view: "I'm sure (administration officials)
don't know what the Israelis are going to do. They didn't know when the
Israelis hit the reactor in Syria. But the Israelis usually know what
we're going to do."
In one way, the ambiguity is an advantage for
the United States, because Washington could claim it had no
foreknowledge of any Israeli attack, which would almost certainly
increase anti-American sentiment among many Muslims in the Middle East.
leaders have not suggested an attack on Iran's suspected nuclear
weapons sites is imminent. But neither have they - or US President
Barack Obama, for that matter - ruled it out.
believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, says a
nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its existence. Iran says its nuclear
program is entirely peaceful and denies Western accusations it is
seeking an atomic bomb.
Panetta: miltary action could have unintended consequences
uncertainty comes amid extraordinarily sharp public warnings in the
last few weeks by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the potential
"unintended consequences" of military action against Iran.
told a forum in Washington last week that an attack on Iran would risk
"an escalation" that could "consume the Middle East in confrontation and
conflict that we would regret."
It could disrupt the fragile
economies of the United States and Europe, spark a popular backlash in
Iran bolstering its rulers and put US forces in the region in the firing
line, he said. "The United States would obviously be blamed and we
could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our
ships, striking our military bases," Panetta said.
Dempsey, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told
Reuters in an interview he did not know whether the Jewish state would
give the United States notice ahead of time if it decided to act.
Israeli government official said, "Israel and the United States are in
close and continuous communication on the threat posed to world security
by the Iranian nuclear program. We appreciate President Obama's
determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon." The
official declined to comment further.
At the same time, however,
Obama's relations with Israeli leaders have not been particularly warm.
He has not visited the country as president.
A former US
government official said: "There are plenty of instances when the
Israelis have undertaken action without informing the United States
first. So not always should we assume a level of coordination (between
Washington and Israel) in advance on all issues."
"Israel has history of conducting operations without notice"
Riedel, a former senior CIA expert on the Middle East who has advised
Obama, said, "Israel has a long history of conducting military
operations from Baghdad to Tunis without giving Washington advance
Riedel said the White House wants to send Israel a
strong message that the United States does not expect to be blindsided
by its ally. "Obama wants Bibi to understand unequivocally he does not
want a repeat performance in Iran," he said, referring to Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.
The Obama administration
suspects that Israeli leaders have marked out for themselves certain
"red lines" related to Iranian nuclear progress which could trigger
Israeli military action if they are crossed, one US official said,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Obama administration policymakers are plagued by a "sense of
opacity" in their understanding of where the Israeli red lines are
drawn, the official added.
Two other US officials, also speaking on condition they not be named,
said Washington is deeply concerned Israel, unconvinced sanctions and
diplomatic pressure will halt Iran's nuclear program, could eventually
decide to take action on its own.
By the same token, one of the US officials said, speeches and statements
by Israeli leaders, like an address by Netanyahu on Sunday in which he
talked about making "the right decision at the right moment" even if
allies object, could be politically motivated.
Under this interpretation, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials may be
playing to domestic audiences or trying to put pressure on the
international community to do more on Iran.