Why in the world were these things said?
“It would have been better to solve it (the Iranian nuclear crisis) in a diplomatic way, by using pressure and without applying military force,” the ambassador clarified at the closed meeting, “But that does not mean that this [attack] option is not possible. Not only is it possible, it is ready. The necessary planning is in place to make sure it’s ready.”
Well, OK. The question is not whether we are ready or should be ready for this option – um, of course we are; would we tell anyone if we weren’t? – the question is why our ambassador in Israel would say this. (Read the full comments for the unnecessarily explicit flavor.)
First of all, an ambassador – or at least his top advisors – knows that bellicose comments of this kind do not accord with the conventions of diplomacy. You don’t go around assuring other nations that you’ve been practicing to attack a third party. Besides being operationally stupid, it’s potentially both destabilizing and destructive to your credibility.
Instead, you state what your national interests are, you clarify the outcome you’re looking for, and you assure the relevant audience that you will do what it takes to protect your interests and secure your outcomes. The point is not whether the audience knows that you have actually tested a military OPLAN (who cares? We test them regularly), the point is for them to understand exactly what you want and the seriousness of your determination.
A warning (or, in this case, an assurance) that the US is ready to attack Iran was almost certainly given on orders from the White House, since it’s not something a diplomat would naturally be moved to say, or say without permission. It’s a combination of operational TMI and inflammatory rhetoric: a sort of anti-diplomacy.
Second, this is a threat that can’t be convincingly conveyed in a fey, indirect manner. If we mean this threat and we want it to affect Iran’s decisions, then say it to Iran. (I would advise putting it in different terms.) Putting the threat out there in the guise of an assurance to Israel just looks manipulative.
It also looks spurious and irresponsible, if we’re going to sit down with the Iranians in Baghdad later this month and “negotiate.” What, exactly, are the Iranians supposed to assume about this threat? What action of theirs could trigger it? Does it clarify the US position, or obfuscate it? With the threat of war, it is not actually a good idea to be overly clever and create doubt about triggers and your intentions. If you’re going to deploy the war card, certainty is the mindset you want your intended audience to have.
In any case, if the US and the Western powers make the offer of a sweet deal for Iran, in the hope of getting some kind of agreement – a prospect endorsed by the analysis of long-time observer Gerald Seib in this video – that signal will be at odds with the over-explicit threat of attack. It would be hard to be convincing about a coherent position in that case.
Regarding the point on military preparations, I know many readers try to stay abreast of where the aircraft carriers are, and that’s not necessarily a fool’s errand. It’s important not to go all “Pat Buchanan” about it – there are two carriers in the Persian Gulf region at least twice a year because they are turning over their patrol duties; it’s not a sign of the Apocalypse – but it can be a useful indicator. That said, I advise you not to try this at home if you aren’t familiar with US Navy operations. The presence of two or more carriers in the Central Command “AOR” (area of responsibility) is almost always an indicator of strike group turnover – or simply a coincidence due to a rare circumstance like USS Abraham Lincoln’s (CVN-72) recent change of homeport from Everett, Washington to Norfolk, Virginia, which involved an extra transit through (and deployment in) the Middle East.
The US administration announced earlier this year that it would be keeping two carriers on station in the Gulf region for the time being. That gives the president a ready option in case he wants to ramp up pressure on Iran. I would not obsess over the carriers, however. They will undoubtedly participate if there is a strike on Iran – they will be indispensable for keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, and their F/A-18 strike-fighters will no doubt be used for the precision targeting of hardened sites, among other tasks for the airwings – but they may well not be the centerpiece of the operation.
If President Obama were to scope a strike on Iran as I believe he would – narrowly, striking only a limited set of nuclear-related targets – the strike may well be conducted as a “prompt global strike,” according to the doctrine and capability of the same name, which has been in development since the last year of the Bush administration. It could involve mostly cruise missiles and “global airpower”: B-2 and B-52 bombers launching their missions at a distance from Iran, including launches from US territory; i.e., Whiteman and Barksdale. (I doubt that it would involve long-range ballistic missiles, which are not accurate enough for most applications in this kind of strike.) The strike would certainly be conventional, not nuclear.
All that said, if an agreement is reached with Iran in the next couple of months, it will be because the agreement is advantageous to Iran, delaying the EU sanctions which are to kick in this summer, and requiring nothing of Iran that the mullahs were not willing to concede. Any agreement that does not entail full, unannounced inspection of all Iran’s suspect facilities and nuclear-related programs, as well as Iran’s adherence to the “Additional Protocol” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is an agreement that will not stop the nuclear weapons program. That kind of agreement, however, is what we are virtually guaranteed to get.
For the United States, issuing attack threats in the manner of Hugo Chavez is not a convincing posture. I don’t know if the Israelis will find it reassuring; I suspect the Europeans and Iranians will find it annoying, and decide to ignore it.