Iran troops - AFP - January 2012
Iranian troops in a training exercise. Can the crisis be kept at bay another year? Photo by AFP
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A big battle is in the offing. It will pit the one who under no circumstances will endure nuclear weapons in Iranian hands, against another who vehemently opposes Iran's procurement of such weapons. Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama - you try to figure out the differences. There really aren't any differences, other than those of personal pretension. One will declare, "I'll do it better than this rookie"; the other will counter by saying, "He already tried and failed."

Who was it who said "I want peace" - a statement befitting a Nobel Prize laureate? And who declared: "I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can"? That is an Aesopian way of saying "Yes, we can," but also, "We'll do it unilaterally, if we have to." And what about: "I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option"? Or: "I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region"? These declarations are aimed at providing "an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, in full cooperation with its allies, will never allow Iran to attain nuclear weapon capability."

The problem here is that all these statements were made by Romney (in "I Won't Let Iran Get Nukes," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2011), not Obama. They conjure up an impression of determined assertiveness, along the lines of the policy of "I won't allow Iran to attain the nuclear bomb." In reality, however, such declarations are hedged by qualifiers: There are innumerable statements about military power, but nothing is said about a firm commitment to an American strike against Iran, or about giving a green light to Jerusalem for an Israeli attack.

If there is any difference at all between them, Romney's stance represents no more than a marginal alteration of a policy adopted by Obama, and the president's predecessor, George W. Bush. One of Romney's foreign affairs and security advisers, Eliot Cohen, served as the State Department's Counselor during the latter Bush years. In his academic work, Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is an expert on military affairs, including the Israel Defense Forces. Among his pupils: the current head of the IDF Intelligence Corps, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.

While Romney sounds assertive but determined not to tie up himself up with obligations that will make life difficult for him should he be elected, Obama - along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey - ceaselessly declaim the well-worn threat to Iran about not crossing the nuclear military threshold, while in the same breath expressing concern about instability in the Persian Gulf.

The main policy line is clear: The Obama administration is playing for time, trying to deter Iran from doing anything reckless this year in its bid for nuclear capability, whether by closing the Strait of Hormuz or sponsoring a large-scale terror attack that would necessitate responses. Such behavior on Iran's part would require Obama to put his money where his mouth is, and launch a military operation he does not want during an election year.

Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who had virtually no public profile before he ran for president, like Obama four years ago, lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections after the Ayatollah Khomeini abused him, keeping captive dozens of hostages at the overrun U.S. embassy in Tehran, and even enticing Carter into attempting a woebegone rescue effort. Four years later, again on the eve of elections, Reagan made some bellicose pronouncements about Iran and its proxy states, but then made haste to pull out of Beirut following an attack perpetrated by Tehran's proxies on U.S. Marines there. In 1984, Reagan easily bested the Democrat's uninspired candidate, Walter Mondale; a dozen years later, a similar pattern was repeated when Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton defeated the Republicans' phlegmatic challenger, Bob Dole.

In his reelection bid, Obama, of course, wants to be Reagan and Clinton, not Carter. It would help him were Romney to play the role of Mondale and Dole. Indeed, as things stand now, it seems Romney has indeed taken that part. He is no Reagan. Still, in any case, to stay on the safe side, Obama realizes it would be wise to defer confrontation with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor, at least until 2013.

The revised U.S. security strategy disclosed this month by Obama, Panetta and Dempsey reflects this preference. It's possible that Obama's Republican opponent will occupy the White House soon, and might want to alter this hesitant strategy, but the problem would then be that the 2012 budget, incorporating the incumbent president's wait-and-see attitude, would already be a done deal.

Obama's new strategy is influenced by economic considerations in two ways: It reflects belt-tightening within the Pentagon and also a reorganization of priorities in terms of defense matters vis-a-vis other, socioeconomic issues.

Two fronts

Defense officials in Washington have apparently abandoned audacious aspirations about the ability, as the Afghan war winds down, to manage two regional conflicts concurrently - for instance, against Iran and North Korea. Their new policy envisions the management of one such conflict; very limited engagement would be used in a second one. At present, there is in Washington no actual power, nor desire in terms of policy, to wage full-scale engagements in two theaters. Obama will invest his main effort in attempts to revive America's economy; without improvement on that front, his hopes of reelection could be compromised. On the less-important front, other things, meaning defense-related matters, are being held in abeyance.

Obama's revised strategy is still fraught with deep concern about the Middle East - that is, the eastern flank of the region, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, which is seen as more important than the Israeli-Arab dispute, although the latter influences affairs in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. America has promised to maintain a presence in key Middle East areas, even after the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and (in three years' time ) from Afghanistan. An important factor here is the sophisticated weaponry that will be supplied to Gulf states, particularly within the framework of Boeing's F-15 deal with the Saudis - which includes the sale of 84 new fighter planes and the upgrading of 70 Saudi air force planes. In financial terms, this will involve a Saudi investment of nearly $30 billion.

From America's standpoint, this is a perfect deal: Saudi Arabia will be in charge of American planes on the Gulf's western side. But should Islamic fanatics wrest power in Saudi Arabia, carrying out a scenario that has frightened strategists for over three decades, these planes would never get off the ground, due to a lack of trained local technicians and pilots.

Most important, this deal promises 50,000 jobs for Americans for at least 10 years, in 44 states, sprawling over districts represented by an array of Congressmen. It also preserves the competitive balance in the U.S. economy by strengthening Boeing as a counterweight to the other enormous defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the work-in-progress F-35, which will be sold to Israel, and of the F-16, to be sold to Iraq. No politician, no matter how intensely he or she might wail about the possible Saudi threat to Israel, would be able to disrupt this corporate balance and the domestic advantages it offers.

Among others, Joint Chiefs chairman Dempsey has been recruited to the effort to market the Saudi arms deal to the American public; he was stationed in Saudi Arabia between 2001 and 2003. Dempsey's involvement constitutes a mirror image of how the IDF exploits the economic and social implications of a change in the defense budget: When officers from the IDF General Staff lobby for allocations of billions of shekels for procurement of new armored personnel carriers or for upgrading tanks - they stress the harm that would be caused to scores of factories in Israel, particularly in peripheral regions, by slashes in defense spending.

In such struggles, the General Staff closes ranks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but when it comes to Iran, the picture is different. Army officers are not happy with Barak's public warnings about Iran's attaining nuclear capacity within a matter of months. By contrast, the IDF's carefully parsed latest assessment states that "possibly Iran will have nuclear operational capability sometime within the span of the next five-year plan," which could stretch to between 2013 and 2017, or even to 2018. That is, the army hints: "An Iranian bomb? Possibly, but not during the current year."

What exactly does the army mean by "operational nuclear capability"? The creation of the first nuclear warhead? If not that, how many nuclear missiles, dispersed around the country in hardened bunkers, providing Iran with a credible second-strike capability and the ability to deter a preemptive attack, would Iran be endowed with when it has "operational capability"?

2008 document

The IDF Intelligence Corps has altered its public formulations on the Iran issue. The former head of the corps, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, joined forces with the so-called moderate camp in internal discussions of the Iran issue held by the defense establishment; he supported the stance taken by then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. But in public, army intelligence officers supported the campaign to persuade foreign powers, particularly the United States, not to rely on a vague policy of deterrence and "containment." (During the Cold War, the concept of containment referred to the West's effort to stop the spread of Soviet communism. )

"The strategy of containment and deterrence, and the arguments against this policy" - this was the title of a working paper drafted in 2008, during the last American election season, by the intelligence branch of the General Staff. The nine-page document related to "the consistent message delivered in domestic U.S. policy discussions and in claims made against Israel." This message, the document explained, was "to become reconciled with a nuclear Iran, and to focus on a strategy of deterrence and containment." It was upheld by important advisers to then-candidate Obama and also those of his rival, John McCain.

Here are examples of the pro and con arguments in the document related to the policy of containment and deterrence vis-a-vis Iran:

In favor: "No military option is feasible, not one undertaken by the Americans, and certainly not by Israel," and even if one were to be attempted, "it would be a bad and dangerous idea due to its high price, and its uncertain and limited results."

Against: Prior to Benjamin Netanyahu's second term as prime minister, IDF strategists wrote that, "nobody is keen on a military attack, but such an attack could derail Iran's nuclear program for a significant number of years." In drafting "cost-benefit scenarios, there really is no place for alarmist scenarios that stress the price Iran might exact in response to an attack. In any event, a diplomatic effort that is not backed by viable options of force is liable to turn into a sterile endeavor that begets tragic results. Only a credible threat of American, or even Israeli, military action would enable the [leaders] of various states to explain to their constituencies why they are heeding the enforcement of rigorous sanctions against Iran."

In favor: "There is no substantive evidence of the existence of a military nuclear program, and so there are no definite targets for an attack."

And against: "The bottleneck in a nuclear program is not the state of the planning of a weapons system; instead, it is the enrichment process and the establishment of a wide nuclear infrastructure in Iran - and these can be taken care of effectively."

Four years later, the arguments and the equivocations remain the same. All of the sides moved forward as best they could, but meanwhile the crisis remains on the horizon. If everything depends on the presidential hopefuls, who are worried about being held responsible for the rising gas prices that would inevitably follow an attack on Iran, the crisis will remain at bay, at least for another year.

It will be interesting to see who is more accurate in his assessment, Barak or Obama. Meanwhile, Iranian scientists keep getting blown up on the street.