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Division Over Iran?

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It seems like only yesterday that the Obama administration missed no opportunity to declare its solidarity with Israel regarding the threat of a nuclear Iran.

As we noted in a Feb. 10 editorial, President Obama had just declared that the U.S. and Israel “have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had. We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to resolve this – hopefully diplomatically.”

And other world leaders were equally resolute about not allowing Iran to become a nuclear power, even if a military solution was what it would ultimately take..

So we were dismayed by some recent statements on the part of senior American military and intelligence officials seemingly designed to draw a line in the sand between Israel and the U.S. on the issue of military action against Iran.

Appearing on CNN this past Sunday, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Israel not to attack Iran; among the reasons he gave were that a military strike would only amount to a temporary setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and that it would invite retaliation and be a “destabilizing” factor throughout the Middle East.

He went on to say that “It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.” He cautioned, however that “I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded [Israel] that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion.”

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon delivered a similar message to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a recent meeting.

Also, Joe Cirincione, of the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board that provides the State Department with independent advice on security and diplomatic issues, said it is unclear whether an Israeli attack on Iran “would do enough damage to actually do much more than delay the program for a year or so.”

Cirincione said a strike would doubtless be the beginning of either a greater war or a large-scale containment effort to try to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

American officials aren’t the only ones who seem to be distancing themselves from Israel. On Sunday, British foreign secretary William Hague called on Israel to give the internationally imposed sanctions against Iran more time: “Israel, like everyone else in the world, should be giving a real chance to the approach we adopted – very serious economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and the readiness to negotiate with Iran.”

To be sure, not everyone has to agree with Israel’s approach to Iran and there may indeed be valid arguments for taking a cautious, give-sanctions-a chance approach. But what rankles is the public venue chosen for the expression of disagreement.

What possible policy requirement dictated a public statement that the U.S. was opposed to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? What would have been lost if the Obama administration had privately communicated to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it was opposed to a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities at this point in time? As the Wall Street Journal editorialized:

In a single sound bite, Gen. Dempsey managed to tell the Iranians they can breathe easier because Israel’s main ally is opposed to an attack on Iran, such attack isn’t likely to work in any case, and the US fears Iran’s retaliation….

If the U.S. really wanted its diplomacy to work in lieu of force, it would say and do what ever it can to increase Iran’s fear of an attack. It would say publicly that Israel must be able to protect itself and that it has the means to do so. America’s top military officer in particular should say that if Iran escalates in response to an Israeli attack, the U.S. would have no choice but to intervene on behalf of its ally. The point of coercive diplomacy is to make an adversary understand that the costs of its bad behavior will be very, very high.

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