Washington Affairs: Time(s) to act

And every day that goes by means the Israeli and US timelines on Iran are less in sync.

Mullen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mullen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
At a Congressional hearing on Iran on Wednesday, US Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, was trying to impress upon the witness the urgency of dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic Republic and its quest for nuclear capabilities. "Time is not on our side, and time is most certainly not on Israel's side," he warned William Burns, the State Department's third-highest official and the man who holds the Iran portfolio. The added emphasis on Israel's shorter timeline could easily be chalked up to a rhetorical flourish rather than a true difference in perspective on the urgency of the threat. But, since parsing words from US officials has become a major preoccupation of Israeli officials, boosters worry that the two countries are diverging when it comes to dealing with Iran. The staunchly pro-Israel Pence, even in urging greater US action on the issue, was merely highlighting what has long been apparent: the two countries have similar but not identical timelines when it comes to Iran. And every day that goes by means those timelines are less in sync. But that's not all. Other words from top US figures in recent days have been cause for greater consternation, as some have raised questions about America's willingness to keep the option of a last-resort military strike on the table, even as the prospect looms larger in Israeli eyes. Around the same time Israel conducted a large-scale military exercise believed to have simulated action in connection to Iran, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen visited the Jewish state. When he was asked upon his return about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran, he suggested that it would be a " destabilizing" act and said that "opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us. That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging. And also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict." More obliquely, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when asked Wednesday whether Iran's testing of missiles brought the US any closer to confrontation with the Islamic Republic, said he didn't think so, warning, "There is a lot of signaling going on. But I think everybody recognizes what the consequences of any kind of a conflict would be." And President George W. Bush himself, who earlier in his tenure had vowed that Iran would not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, has recently struck a decidedly softer note with his time in office drawing to a close. "I leave behind a multilateral framework to work this issue," Bush said in Europe last month, implying that he would not resolve this issue before leaving the White House. "You know, one country can't solve all problems. I fully agree with that. A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians, and that is: 'We're going to continue to isolate you. We'll continue to work on sanctions. We'll find new sanctions if need be if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world.'" "There's always been a creative tension on the issue because the Israelis have historically always thought the issue is more imminent than [the US]," said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. Now, he continued, that difference has grown - and justifiably gives Israelis reason to worry. Israel has never wanted to act alone, he noted, describing a "symbiosis" between Jerusalem and Washington where Israel has taken a back seat, with the "quiet understanding" that the US would exert all of the economic and diplomatic pressures at its disposal while reserving the use of military force if those measures failed. Increasingly, he said, "that isn't happening." Economic and diplomatic measures have been largely ineffective and military force seems to be slowly creeping under the table, despite official assertions to the contrary. "The divergence in that context is pretty grave because Israel was counting on a united front with the United States and now that united front is rhetorical at best," Berman said. John Calabrese, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that a confluence of events has seemed to leave Washington bereft of a real military option. First, the December US National Intelligence Estimate, compiled by a wide range of US intelligence agencies, found that Iran had apparently halted its nuclear weaponization program. In one swift blow, he said, "It subtracted or reduced the justification or the pretext for such a strike." Since then, he noted, American casualties from Iranian meddling in Iraq have also fallen - removing another possible rallying cry for an attack. And lastly, he added, a Sunni axis assertively allied with the West against Iran hasn't quite materialized, as Gulf States have remained open to some level of ties with Iran - which others have speculated comes from their own sense that Iran will undoubtedly stay a regional power player, while the US is a more iffy presence. Calabrese also pointed out that the administration hasn't spoken with one voice on these issues, and that the US government itself is divided between advocating more isolation with an openness to military action or pursuing further diplomacy. Mullen, for instance, spoke about the need " for better clarity, even dialogue at some level" with Iran at the same time he talked about the importance of economic and diplomatic pressure. And Bush himself, when asked just last week whether he would discourage Israel from attacking Iran, said that he had made it "very clear to all parties that the first option" was diplomacy, but pointedly didn't rule out such a strike. At the same time, Danielle Pletka, the DC-based American Enterprise Institute's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, challenged the very notion that Israel and the US should be expected to have the same approach to Iran. "The US and Israel are going to have very different viewpoints about it because Israel is in the neighborhood and the US is not," she stressed. "There are existential questions for Israel that do not exist for the United States." Yet in some ways the fate of the two countries' policies have become closer in recent weeks as Iran has threatened that it would retaliate against the United States for any strike, even if carried out by Israel. That complicates the decision for Jerusalem. Any Israeli strike "would have a huge affect on US-Israel relations," according to Berman, who said Israel would have "a much freer hand" if it didn't have to worry that its close ally could be faced with terrorism, attacks on US troops in the Middle East, or skyrocketing oil prices. "If there's concern that America would get hurt in the process, that's where American public support and domestic opinion gets into it." And that, he continued, makes the proposition a hard sell, particularly in an election year. Bush, he said, also seems limited by his lame duck status and low poll numbers. All of which brings up another shared perspective: no one wants war, Israel included. Pence said that during his recent trip to Israel, "I heard no issue more widely discussed than the threat of a nuclear enabled Iran." Yet he continued, "Interestingly, I heard no one advocating war. Rather, in meeting after meeting, Israeli officials, members of the Knesset and thought leaders repeated a desire that the United States of America and this Congress bring renewed economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on Iran." And that's something on which both the US and Israel can agree.