Khamenei - AFP - 3.2.12
Ayatolah Khamenei (left) has taken a more stubborn line on the nuclear issue than President Ahmadinejad (far right). Photo by AFP
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What does the United States think about a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities? The Obama administration is a vocal opponent of such an operation, certainly given what's to come: sharper sanctions against Iran, U.S. presidential elections, fear of a global fuel crisis. So under what circumstances would the United States support bombing Iranian sites (or back an Israeli attack in retrospect)?

The answer to that essential question depends on who you ask. In fact, sometimes it seems to depend mostly on the day of the week. For example, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seems to reject an attack outright, while he takes a different line on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Complaints are often voiced about the "loose lips" of senior Israeli officials, particularly Defense Minister Ehud Barak (which also provides good material for the satirical program "A Wonderful Country"). But the Americans are not much better. This week Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told the Senate he had not recommended that Israel abstain from an attack on Iran - exactly 10 days after telling CNN that such an attack would not be "prudent at this point." Just to be on the safe side, Dempsey reminded the senators that "all options are on the table."

Furthermore, the U.S. declarations are accompanied by daily media leaks - many of them contradictory - by officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. These appear to reflect general confusion within the Obama administration.

Almost three years after Obama's reconciliation speech to the Arab world in Cairo, the Middle East is in turmoil and the Americans are zigzagging accordingly. Time after time they clarify statements, correct themselves and then change direction again.

The flip-flopping over Iran was preceded by dramatic shifts in Washington's approach to the Mubarak regime in Egypt (which it abandoned to its fate), and its use of force against Libya's Gadhafi regime. Now there is much stuttering and stammering over how much to assist Syrian opposition groups.

Israel is not viewing these developments with equanimity. Even though the question of whether to attack Iran is still a matter of sharp controversy, the impression in Jerusalem is that the many and contradictory statements by leading figures in Washington are not serving the main purpose: increasing pressure on Iran. A senior political figure told Haaretz that many of the statements have led the Iranians to believe there is no real Western threat to their nuclear program, and therefore no need to halt it.

"If the United States does not project toughness all along the way, both in terms of sanctions and in terms of threatening military action, Tehran is liable to conclude - mistakenly - that 2012 is a lost year for the international community and that its nuclear program can proceed normally," said the source. "At the moment, owing to the contradictory messages from Washington, the Iranians are assuming that nothing military will happen until the U.S. presidential elections in November. They believe the administration fears an attack because fuel prices could soar, and that Israel will not move without a green light from Washington. The sanctions are pressuring Iran, but without a determined, unified front, Tehran will not budge."

Crossed wires

Barak made a lightning two-day visit to Washington this week and then rushed back home to prepare for the publication of the state comptroller's draft report on the Harpaz affair, set for Sunday. The affair involves alleged attempts within the defense establishment to block the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of staff.

Barak, leader of Israel's hawkish camp on Iran, had hoped to find greater American understanding for his new term: "zone of immunity." By this he means the date by which the Iranians will have concealed enough uranium-enrichment equipment underground so that a military attack will no longer work.

Next week, it will be the turn of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As opposed to his catastrophic White House visit last May, during the AIPAC conference, this time he can expect a warmer embrace. After all, this is an election year. Playing to the Jewish vote is not the only consideration for Obama, who will be addressing the AIPAC conference for the second year in a row. In the months ahead, Washington will do all it can to make Jerusalem feel it is getting everything it wants - except, of course, for an American green light to bomb Iran. In addition to public expressions of support, this backing will include reinforcing joint defense systems and expanding joint military maneuvers. Republican presidential contenders are also calling for giving Israel more advanced munitions, including upgraded bunker-buster bombs. However, this is unlikely to receive administration support.

Still, Netanyahu and Barak, as well as ministers advocating a more moderate line, are having a hard time understanding Washington's behavior vis-a-vis Iran. Presuming sanctions may force the ayatollahs to freeze the nuclear project, such measures still need to be backed by a credible military threat. If Panetta is busy explaining why an attack will not achieve anything, as he did at last December's Saban Forum, what will make the Iranians think the threat is real?

The lack of understanding is not a one-way street. Over the past three months, believing that an Israeli attack is an increasingly viable option, European and U.S. delegations have been flying into Israel almost weekly. Like the Americans, the Europeans don't know what Israel wants, either.

It is not only a question of understanding the seriousness of Israel's threats. Western diplomats say the international community has gone farther than Israel ever thought in approving sanctions. And yet, they say, Israel is continuing to scatter warnings about an impending Doomsday.

North Korea's surprising announcement Wednesday that it was suspending its nuclear weapons program will undoubtedly be taken by many in the West as a signal that a similar agreement can be extorted from Iran as well. Given the Obama administration's repeated embarrassments in the Middle East, the agreement with Pyongyang is in itself an impressive accomplishment.

Despite the tremendous upheaval in the Middle East over the past year, some things apparently never change. A case in point is the ancient enmity between Shi'ites and Sunnis, which intensified amid the Arab Spring. If it had seemed that Iran was tearing down the walls around it over the past two decades, that assumption has been rebuffed lately.

Losing legitimacy

Indeed, over those years, Iran established reasonable relations with a Sunni state, Qatar, and with a Sunni-Palestinian organization, Hamas. Qatar, as reflected in Al Jazeera's lenient attitude toward Iran, viewed itself as a bridge between the Sunnis and Iranians. Hamas for its part was thrust into Iran's arms due to financial plight. But the ferocious civil strife in Syria is turning back the clock. Qatar, like other Sunni countries, is demanding the immediate removal of President Bashar Assad, despite Iran's objections. Now senior Hamas figures are leaving Damascus - and some are trying to distance themselves from Tehran, too.

In the meantime, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has other headaches. Alongside his leading role backing Assad, Khamenei is also in the midst of his own political survival campaign. Western experts say he views the nuclear project as a war over his own future, not that of his country.

In recent years Khamenei has taken a more stubborn line on the nuclear issue than even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is now apparently concerned that his domestic critics will take any compromise as a sign of weakness and as capitulation to Western pressure. However, it is this line and its consequences - the West's economic sanctions - that are subjecting Khamenei to sharp criticism even by regime loyalists.

"Khamenei has less legitimacy with every passing day," says Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Even the first commander of the Revolutionary Guards came out against him. Iranian television shows people who want the next supreme spiritual leader to be elected by the people. Khamenei is making mistakes under pressure. He could have embraced the reformists and their aid, but he did exactly the opposite."

Yet one indication that Khamenei continues to retain considerable power can be seen in Iran's parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for today. The reformists have been left completely out of the picture. The contest is between two conservative groups and a third group of Ahmadinejad loyalists, whom Khamenei is expected to "politically assassinate." The spiritual leader has not actually declared public war against the president, but has suggested that in the future the parliament, and not the public, will elect the president. Hence the great significance of today's elections.

Two camps are emerging, says Javedanfar. The first is the moderate-conservative camp called the United Front of Conservatives. It includes several well-known politicians, including Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, parliament speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The members of this group are considered Ahmadinejad's bitter political foes. The second camp, the Front for Stability of Islamic Revolution, has been joined by some of the country's most extreme politicians - "messianists," led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.

There are no great differences between the camps; they all espouse tough positions on the nuclear issue and are hostile to the president and his deputy Esfandiar Rahim-Mashei. Both accept Khamenei's leadership without question. This is probably a succession battle between the two ayatollahs. Mesbah Yazdi is watching with concern the growing strength of his rival, Mahdavi Kani, who heads the Council of Experts, which will choose Iran's next spiritual leader when the time comes. Still, Javedanfar observes, a victory by the ultra-conservatives under Mesbah Yazdi will mean the West can forget about nuclear talks with Iran.