01/19/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

On Iran, U.S. Needs More Clarity

In recent weeks, there have been so many important and confusing developments connected with Iran and its nuclear missile program that it's hard to figure out exactly what's happening.

Mixed messages from the United States, including statements by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have not helped.

On December 19, Panetta said Iran could possibly build a nuclear weapon within about a year -- or possibly less if the Iranians had a hidden facility somewhere in the country that might be enriching fuel of which the United States was not currently aware.

A couple of weeks later, Panetta gave a slightly different message. He told CBS's Face The Nation: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us."

Despite these tough words about "red lines," the New York Times' Mark Landler reported this week that "few inside the administration see a surefire way of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold."

He added:

"The administration is deeply reluctant to use military action, and the United States strenuously denied involvement in the recent killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Instead, it has focused mainly on using economic pressure to make Iran pay a high price for expanding its nuclear efforts despite international sanctions."

Next, the United States abruptly postponed a massive joint missile-defense exercise with Israel that had been scheduled for the spring after months of intensive planning. The administration had previously talked up the exercise with the American Jewish community as evidence of the unprecedented level of military cooperation under Obama between the United States and Israel.

The ostensible reason for the postponement, according to Israeli sources reported in the media, was the administration's desire to defuse tensions with Iran so that new sanctions might force Tehran into negotiations on its nuclear program. But no clear explanation emerged from either the White House or the Pentagon.

Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that "U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict."

Perhaps in response to this, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel was "very far off"from a decision about an attack on Iran over its nuclear program. When pressed as to whether "very far off" meant weeks or months, Barak replied: "I wouldn't want to provide any estimates. It's certainly not urgent. I don't want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen."

There is a sense that the Iranian issue is coming to a boil on several fronts simultaneously. The fact that this is happening in the run-up to scheduled parliamentary elections in Iran on March 2 and in the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign raises even higher the stakes for all parties.

The sanctions adopted by Congress last month targeting the Central Bank of Iran, through which the regime in Tehran processes the receipts of its crucial oil exports, are the toughest yet put into place. If the European Union follows through on its plan to impose a ban on oil purchases from Iran this summer, the Islamic Republic will find itself under unprecedented international pressure.

The Iranians have hit back by threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, spooking oil markets and driving the price of crude up. The aim appears to be to weaken the resolve of some European countries with shaky economies as well as some Asian countries to back the proposed oil sanctions.

We also witnessed the killing of an Iranian scientist last week by an unknown assailant. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the deputy director at the Natanz enrichment site, was killed by a motorcyclist who slapped a magnetized bomb on the scientist's car during Tehran's rush hour.

The ongoing campaign of sabotage and targeted killing is clearly having a powerful psychological effect and has slowed the Iranian program. But the question remains whether these tactics, even in combination with the tough sanctions scheduled to take effect in coming weeks, can actually stop it.