Analysis: Why the US is talking tough on Iran

Timing, some implications of recent remarks by US secretary of defense, chairman of Joint Chiefs send a clear message.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
There is no question the Americans are escalating their rhetoric with regards to Iran. The question though is why.
While the Defense Ministry is trying to take credit for the shift, claiming it stems from Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s 20-minute sit down with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Reform Movement’s recent conference, it is likely far more complex.
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First, there is not that much new in what both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said this week. Nevertheless, the timing and some of the implications of their remarks send a clear message.
Panetta made headlines by telling CBS News that Iran could build a nuclear weapon in a year or even sooner. While this was widely reported, some media outlets left out his next statement – that this would only happen if and when the Iranians actually decide to make a bomb, something that has yet to happen.
This has been said a number of times by Israeli defense and government officials in recent months. Barak made the same comment in an interview with CNN just a month ago.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threatClick here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
By repeating it now, though, Panetta is basically saying that the US and Israel see eye-to-eye on the state of Iran’s nuclear program. This was not always the case, as demonstrated by the National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007, which said the US could not conclude for certain the Iranians were working on a nuclear weapons program. Israel vehemently disagreed.
Dempsey’s comments to CNN were mostly a repeat of what we have heard out of the Obama administration since it came to power in 2009; it has consistently declared that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran.
Dempsey took it a step further, thought, saying preparations for the military option “are evolving to a point that they would be executable if necessary.”
This is an explicit threat, something not heard every day from Washington.
Israel listened carefully, and for the most part is keeping quiet, allowing the Americans to take the lead in the campaign against Iran.
Both Panetta and Dempsey made their comments during trips to the Middle East where they encountered extreme concern in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Afghanistan with Iran’s nuclear program and the affect it would have on the regimes there.
Also, the Panetta-Dempsey comments came just two weeks after Iran announced it has the US’s top secret RQ- 170 Sentinel drone. This has the Americans extremely embarrassed and frustrated, a possible explanation for the escalation in rhetoric.
There is also the US presidential election next November. Obama is accused by his Republican contenders of being soft. Having his defense chief and top general talk tough helps him change that image.
Finally, there is the genuine concern over Iran’s continued nuclear development. Iran is dispersing its facilities – moving centrifuges from Natanz to the underground fortified location near Qom – and basically all that is needed is a decision to build the bomb.
Time is running out.
The US also does not want Israel to attack and hopes that by making more blunt threats, it will on the one hand ease Israeli concerns and at the same time shake up the Iranians to rethink their course.
Israel hopes this will work, and some officials bring the events of 2003 as proof that when Iran believes it faces a credible military threat it knows how to rationally calculate its options and even suspend its program. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq, and fearing that it would be next in line, Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium and its weapons program, restarting both two years later.
The question is whether it is too late to stop Iran by simply waving a big stick.
The reason is simple – the Iranians are at the stage where they have enriched the required amount of uranium and mastered the necessary technology to build a bomb.
All they have to do is decide to do so and begin racing ahead. The temptation might be too hard to resist.