Will a U.S. Attack on Iran Become Obama’s ‘October Surprise’?

Israelis and many Americans are convinced that President Obama will ultimately back away from attacking Iran. They may be wrong.

1. “When American officials declare that all options are on the table, most Israelis do not believe them. They have concluded, rather, that when the crunch comes (and everyone thinks it will), the United States will shy away from military force and reconfigure its policy to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.”

This was the bottom line of “What Israelis Hear When Obama Officials Talk About Iran”, an article written by William Galston, a senior research fellow at Brookings, after he canvassed the Israeli participants in the recent Saban Forum held in Washington in early December.


Since that diagnosis, rendered only three weeks ago, the content, tone and intensity of American pronouncements on Iran have undergone progressively dramatic changes. These include:

• December 16: President Obama, in a speech before the Union of Reform Judaism, goes from the passive “a nuclear Iran is unacceptable” to the assertive “We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

• December 19: Secretary of Defense Panetta, hitherto the main articulator of the pitfalls of an attack on Iran, suddenly ups the ante by declaring that Iran might be only a year away from acquiring a nuclear bomb, that this the “red line” as far as the U.S. is concerned, and that Washington “will take whatever steps necessary to deal with it."

• December 20: General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells CNN that “the options we are developing are evolving to a point that they would be executable, if necessary”, adding: 'My biggest worry is that they (Iranians) will miscalculate our resolve'.

• December 21: Dennis Ross tells Israel’s Channel 10 television that President Obama would be prepared to “take a certain step” if that is what is required and “this means that when all options are on the table and if you’ve exhausted all other means, you do what is necessary".

• December 22: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, commenting on the above statements, says that they "make clear a fact that was already known to us from closed-door (discussions). It makes clear to Iran that it faces a real dilemma."

• December 23: Matthew Kroenig, former Special Adviser on Iran at the Pentagon, publishes an article in the prestigious Foreign Affairs, entitled “Time to Attack Iran”, in which he lays out the case for an American offensive against Iran – sooner rather than later.

Israeli analysts, however, remain unconvinced. Influenced, perhaps, by their own experience with Israel’s cynical political leadership, they have ascribed much of this newly-found oomph in American utterances to an elections-inspired attempt by the Obama Administration to “show support for Israel” at a time of political need. Conversely, they maintain that the change in the American tone is a result of new intelligence information that was presented by Barak to Obama in their December 16 meeting in Washington.

Both of these assessments may or may not be true, but they fail to tell the whole story. The timing of the reinvigorated American rhetoric is undoubtedly tied to the December 18 withdrawal of the last American troops from Iraq. The U.S. Army and the Pentagon have long opposed inflammatory rhetoric toward Tehran during the withdrawal, for fear it might endanger U.S. troops in Iraq. With the withdrawal complete, the Administration felt free to adopt a much more belligerent tone, literally overnight.

As to the substance of American policy, Israelis appear to have persuaded themselves that, despite his vigorous prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and his successful and deadly pursuit of al-Qaida, Obama remains “soft” on Iran and will ultimately back down when push comes to shove. This perception has been fed by Obama’s ill-fated attempt to “engage” with Iran, his initial courtship of the Arab and Muslim world, what is widely perceived as his pro-Palestinian tendencies – and the overall animosity and prejudice directed at the president by many of his detractors.

The Republicans are so convinced, in fact, that they are basing much of their foreign policy campaign against Obama on the assumption that he will ultimately capitulate to Tehran. That may be a dangerous assumption on their part.

In his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 2009 – possibly forgotten because of the ridiculously premature or spectacularly misdirected awarding of the prize - Obama spoke of a "just war" which can be waged “as a last resort or in self-defense”. After warning of the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear campaign, he said “those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”

In the days after that speech in Oslo, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was often cited as a source of inspiration for Obama, and it was Niebuhr who wrote, “contemporary history refutes the idea that nations are drawn into war too precipitately. It proves, on the contrary, that it is the general inclination of democratic nations at least to hesitate so long before taking this fateful plunge that the dictator nations gain a fateful advantage over them.” Obama may not want to fall into that pattern.

People believe what they want to believe, but Obama has already proven - in Afghanistan, in Libya, in the offensive against al-Qaida, in the drone war in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen – that he is no pacifist and does not shy way from using military force when necessary. And while he has stuck to his prepared script that “all options are on the table," people who have heard Obama speak about Iran in closed sessions have no doubt that if all else fails, including “crippling” sanctions and international isolation, Obama would order a U.S. attack on Iran, if he was convinced, as he appears to be, that it posed a clear and present danger to America’s national security.

2. And there can be no doubt - notwithstanding claims by the radical left and the isolationist right - that a nuclear Iran would be an unmitigated disaster for American interests, above and beyond the existential threat to Israel. Arab countries would be confronted by a stark choice between subservience to Tehran and the dangerous pursuit of their own nuclear prowess; Muslim extremism would flourish at a particularly precarious juncture in Arab history, compelling newly-emergent Muslim parties, especially in Egypt, to opt for extreme belligerence toward America and Israel; under a protective nuclear umbrella, Hamas and Hezbollah and others of their ilk would be able to run amok with impunity; the entire Middle East would be destabilized and America’s oil supplies held hostage by a self-confident and bellicose Iran. The standing of the U.S., after it is inevitably perceived as having lost out to the Ayatollahs, would reach an all-time low. Russia and China would gradually become the dominant powers in the region. Tehran would be free to expand and further develop its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile capability. And Israel, America’s main ally in the region – perhaps in the world – would face a continuous mortal and ultimately paralyzing threat from an increasingly implacable enemy.

Given their doubts about Obama’s resolve to order a U.S. military attack, Israeli analysts have tended to focus on the existence, or lack thereof, of an American “green light” for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Indeed, one of the arguments made by Kroenig in Foreign Affairs is that a U.S. attack “can also head off a possible Israeli operation against Iran, which, given Israel’s limited capability to mitigate a potential battle and inflict lasting damage, would likely result in far more devastating consequences and carry a far lower probability of success than a U.S. attack.”

But it is far from clear whether America’s acknowledged operational and logistical advantage is the most compelling argument against an Israeli attack, and whether Israel is indeed incapable of “inflicting lasting damage” on Iran. After years and years of preparation, and with the wily Barak at the helm, one should “expect the unexpected” from an Israeli attack. It would definitely not be a rerun of the 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, not in scope, not in intensity, not in the means of delivery and not in the yield and sophistication of the weapons that will be thrown into battle.

But there are other profound drawbacks to an Israeli attack and corresponding advantages to an American offensive. An Israeli attack would rally the Arab and Muslim world behind Iran, strengthen radical Islamists, neutralize potentially sympathetic countries as Saudi Arabia and further distance Turkey from Israel and the West. The U.S. would have no choice but to support Israel, even though such support would inflame animosity toward Washington throughout the Muslim world. An American attack, on the other hand, would restore Washington’s stature and power of deterrence in the Arab world, could unite most of the Sunni monarchies and oil Sheikdoms in tacit assistance, at the very least, for the military effort, could facilitate Turkish neutrality and enable European support, and would sideline the incendiary issue of Israel, just as it did when Jerusalem maintained a “low profile” during the first two Gulf wars. It might also decrease the intensity of a combined Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah and possibly Syrian counterattack against Israel, and would, in any case, free Israel to defend itself and to effectively deal with such an onslaught.

And yes, though hardly devoid of risks, it might very well ensure Barack Obama’s reelection next November.

3. To be sure, despite Republican protestations to the contrary, American voters are ambivalent about a U.S. attack on Iran. In a recent Quinnipiac University Survey, 55 per cent of voters said the U.S. should not take military action against Iran – but 50 per cent would nonetheless support it, if all else fails. And 88 per cent believe that a nuclear Iran posed a serious threat or a somewhat serious threat to American national security.

In the end, it would all come down to timing. The closer to elections that an American attack on Iran would take place, the more it would work in Obama’s favor. Though his left wing flank and possibly large chunks of the Democratic Party would not differentiate between Iraq and Iran, would draw historic parallels with the Bush Administration’s bogus evidence of Iraq’s WMD capabilities and would vehemently criticize Obama for “betraying his principles” - Obama would probably sway most independents and even moderate Republicans who would be swept up in the initial, patriotic wave of support for a campaign against a country that the Republican candidates for the presidency have described as America’s number one enemy. And Obama could point out to the American public that contrary to Iraq, no ground troops would be involved in Iran.

A significantly earlier attack, however, would be far riskier. The initial patriotic fervor might dissipate and the wider ramifications would begin to sink in, including potential Iranian retaliation against American targets, and, perhaps more significantly, the disruption of oil supplies, an unprecedented spike in oil prices and an ensuing and crippling blow to U.S. economic recovery.

If one wants to be absolutely cynical, perhaps Panetta’s one-year deadline was intentionally calibrated with this election timeline. Though there is no basis to suspect Obama of making political calculations, and without detracting from what is sure to be a serious American effort to get sanctions and possibly regime change to do the trick – October would be ideal. That’s the month that Henry Kissinger chose in 1972 to prematurely declare that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, thus turning Richard Nixon’s certain victory over George McGovern into a landslide; that’s the month that Ronald Reagan feared Jimmy Carter would use in 1980 in order to free the Iran hostages and stop the Republican momentum; and that’s the month that many of Obama’s opponents are already jittery about, fearing the proverbial “October Surprise” that would hand Obama his second term on a platter.

Two things are certain: the Republicans, who are now goading Obama for being soft on Iran and beating their own war drums, would reverse course in mid air with nary a blink and accuse the president of playing politics with American lives and needlessly embroiling it in a war which probably could have been avoided if he had been tough on Iran in the first place.

And what about the Jewish vote? That would be Obama’s, lock, stock and barrel, including those Jewish voters who cannot forgive him for the Cairo speech, the bow to King Abdullah, the 1967 borders, the lack of chemistry with Netanyahu and that the fact that he has yet to produce evidence that he isn’t, after all, a closet Muslim.

And in Israel, no doubt about it, he would be forever revered as the ultimate Righteous Gentile.