A story by Eric Schmitt in the New York Times on February 1 reported the testimony of January 31 by James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence: Iran's leaders "are now more willing" to consider attacks inside the United States. The foggy grammar may be traceable to an editorial finger nudging the story. The real news of the Clapper testimony, namely that Iran is not working on a nuclear bomb (is not: no ambiguity there), was placed further down the page. When Schmitt mentions last fall's "suspected assassination plot" by Iran, he has the scruple to include the adjective "suspected." Details of the plot were so improbable, its supposed executors were so crude, visible, and incompetent, that it was hard to credit the claim that this had been ventured by the government of Iran at the highest levels. It looked more like one of the sting operations that have led to trials of suspected civilian terrorists -- people who get most of their ideas from the undercover agents that record the planning and spring the trap.
Of course, the suspected Iranian operation might have been the public face of an Israeli operation. We now know from Mark Perry's story "False Flag," in Foreign Policy, that Mossad agents in recent years posed as CIA agents to recruit Pakistani Jundullah terrorists in order to sow mayhem in Iran. Actions such as the "mysterious" recent explosions in Iran and the assassination of lower-echelon nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran -- about which Israeli officials have expressed a public satisfaction that stops just short of claiming credit -- may also be taken as the handiwork of the United States if the false flag succeeds in planting false conclusions. This appears to have been the goal of the spate of recent killings and sabotage. The final aim for Israel and for its American assistants outside and inside the Obama administration, is not, however, war with Iran but regime change. Regime change in Syria -- Iran's most potent regional ally -- is a related project of the Likud in Israel and the neoconservatives in America. In Syria the work is far along; in Iran, they want to speed it up.
The way to regime change in Iran (so the strategy dictates) must pass through the destruction of the Iranian economy and a mixture of violence and menace to provoke the Iranian government. The Likud and neoconservative hope is simply to reach a point (if possible, before November) where Iran hits out first against the powers that are choking its trade, undermining its industry, assassinating its citizens and serving up serial ultimatums.
This story is easily penetrable. It is only lightly masked, that is to say, by American channels such as section A of the New York Times. The cooked-up crisis, over Iran's supposed option of "breaking out" to manufacture a weapon, goes on a false premise. As Gary Sick has explained, such an action would require Iran to expel the IAEA inspectors who are free to order a surprise look at any site. The warning would come conspicuously, and Iran would have telegraphed its change to the world in advance. All the recent talk, bristling with expertise, about Israel giving the U.S. a 12-hour warning before an attack, is a diversion to play on popular fears. It keeps prodding the subject to keep the fever high in America -- a mood that is useful for many things, if you ever elect to use it. Practically speaking, what Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak hope their actions may accomplish is another kind of breakout. They seek to lure Iran to attack American forces or American assets or Israel. In the latter case, they can claim that unless America does its duty and agrees to a joint attack, or takes the matter out of Israel's hands, Israel itself will attack.
In the last two years, the U.S. Congress has passed resolution after resolution condemning Iran, urging the president to do something hostile, and warning him against negotiations. The EU capitals, hungry for cheap oil and regional influence, clamor for the United States to do resolutely whatever it means to do. An intricate web has thus been constructed. Only great ingenuity and political talent could extricate an American president today. And while this was passing, how has Barack Obama been spending his time?
The president has made no comment on the situation. He has let it heat up for three years now, while the public mind grows swollen with false facts and while negotiations, to the extent that there are negotiations, proceed under cover and at a safe arm's length from Obama. As if diplomacy itself were a shameful thing.
Time does not tell for Obama. He will always have time. That was his philosophy in drawing out the health care debate for twelve months as his popularity sank from 70% to 45%. It was his policy once again, in catastrophically misjudging the odds for an agreement on the debt ceiling. In that affair, Obama hung back. He left it all in the hands of William Daley before sacking Daley and heading out on the campaign trail.
Obama never gets the jump on his opponents. But Iran, the site of his longest delay (because it is the most disagreeable problem he confronts), is the most important issue of his first term. Probably it is the most important he will ever confront in his life. If he drags the U.S. into another war, a war that will be seen throughout the Arab world as a crusade against Islam itself, this will be the thing Barack Obama is remembered for. Why does he suppose, with such recurrent fantasy, that tactical silence and secret action are superior to an honest grappling with the work of public persuasion? The truth is that all Obama's big speeches have been about general matters: change that he sides with but cannot effect. Eventual health coverage for all Americans; the preservation of the middle class; peace among all nations. But Iran should be different.
Let us grant the obstacles, both internal and external. Obama is radically unsuited to crisis, in several ways we are now familiar with. He hates to be involved in negotiations; is easily bored, easily rankled, and hasn't the patience and the power of suspending vanity that are necessary for the work. Also (and this abets inertia), his convictions have surprised him by being weaker than he supposed. He came to the presidency with a sense of himself and the world that was fundamentally immature; his time in office has seen a slow process of public recognition of that fact. He is not a fighter. He is not a "good hater." He is not particularly loyal to his party. He is only now learning what it is to be a good explainer. Finally -- a tremendous error, with Iran -- he delegates rather than takes charge. Distaste for the battle of politics (a different thing from the contest of campaigning) is accompanied, in him, by a love of speculative discussions. So Obama waits; and while he waits, on any given question, the public mood drifts in a direction opposite from what he thought he was aiming for.
To whom has he delegated the matter of Iran? Dennis Ross above all -- the member of the DC permanent establishment who is most reliably associated with the Israel lobby. And Tom Donilon, who gained the president's favor by applauding his 2009 middle-range solution on troop escalation in Afghanistan. The major previous achievements of Dennis Ross are the Clinton and Obama approaches to Palestine. The result speaks for itself. Donilon has been as little in evidence as any head of the National Security Council; before Obama elevated him, he was best known for helping to organize the eastward expansion of NATO: a disaster whose consequences the American people have yet to appreciate fully. So these are the men the president trusts -- in the first case, because of the impeccability of his renown; in the second, because he falls in with Obama's own propensity to continue Cheney-Bush policies but do it slowly in a softer tone.
On Iran, Obama has come to a crossroads. He will soon be called on to refute accusations of weakness by an explosive demonstration of "strength." If things get to that point, there is no doubt that he will do what the war party expects him to do. He will do it to win the election, but he will work hard to convince himself that he does it to save Israel, America, the cause of democracy in Asia, and the future of humanity. The path has been made all the more tempting by the discovery -- a surprise perhaps to the president himself -- that he is not averse to war. His favored mode of killing is the drone strike. There, the man who shoots the missile is far behind the scenes and the president's command of the killing is behind the man behind the scenes. Stealth, secrecy, and aloofness from accountability all make drone attacks non-confrontational, in a way well-adapted to Obama's temperament.
The U.S. is flying drones over Iran. One or two have been brought down, and some Republicans called for revenge. What if more are brought down, and what if several more politicians join the outcry? The Israel lobby and its congressional hosts may then convert the issue into a national cause. This president, who is moving toward war while hiding his negotiations and explaining nothing about Iran to offset the popular fears -- is he ready to argue against another war? Or has war with Iran (so long as it can be portrayed as begun by Iran) already in fact been selected as the path of least resistance?
In actual negotiations of all sorts, over the past three years, Barack Obama has seemed to believe that he is well served by staying well out. He may think so still. But all too conceivably, some day in the next few weeks or the next few months he will have maneuvered himself into giving another version of the Great Power speech he has given before; the one that begins, "So Iran has a choice." And yet, this president -- it was the single great difference between him and the other candidates in 2008 -- said he would negotiate with Iran. Nothing on any intelligence estimate has changed the nuclear status of Iran since he made that pledge. If he meant what he said, it was his business to lead public opinion to support the idea of negotiation and to educate the American people about the desired result.
While Obama waits, fortifications on the other side are being built up with fantastic brazenness. The New York Times, in almost back-to-back articles, on the front page on January 27 and on the cover of the magazine on January 29, informed its readers that Israel has calculated the risk and feels sure that it will not suffer badly in any retaliation following an attack on Iran. The first of these stories, by Ethan Bronner, for some reason quoted only Israeli sources and took their declared estimates at face value. The second, by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, ended by flatly predicting Israel would attack Iran in 2012. (Jeffrey Goldberg, prompted by the same Israeli government sources, in a similar article two years ago in the Atlantic predicted they would attack in 2010.)
There was a puzzling thing about the Bergman story. A series of paragraphs near the end conveyed the substance of conversations with Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad; and everything that was credibly said by Dagan served to discredit the rest of the article. For those paragraphs establish beyond any doubt: (a) that the crisis is nothing like as desperate or "existential" as Netanyahu and Barak have implied, and (b) that there is no long-term insurance for Israel that bombing Iran tomorrow can be supposed to achieve.
Worse than the Bergman article were the publicity captions for it, done in the Hearst manner. All of the "conditions" have been fulfilled for an Israeli attack, these marginal summaries told us. The question was not "if" but "when": a word repeated twice, in different places. So the Times cues and the Times Israel reporters, especially the ones favored with front-page stories and cover stories, are saying this is a last chance for Iran. David Sanger said it was the last chance in May 2009 and, to repeat, Jeffrey Goldberg said it in 2010, but both have been saying it again over the past several months. Others, too, are saying it now; and an election is on, with more than the usual champing bellicosity among the actors on the Republican side. The people who are playing with fire are people who like to play with fire.