By Marc Ambinder, GQ
Rick Santorum would give Iran a "clear ultimatum." Newt Gingrich calls for covert action inside the country and pre-emptive strikes if that doesn't prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And Mitt Romney simply, unsubtly predicts that if Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will get the bomb. He's also accused the president of abandoning Israel, saying the Jewish state "does not need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support." In public, the president warns that the Republican presidential candidates risk fulfilling their own prophecies, and Iran might be prodded into action if it takes cues from such "loose" and "casual" talk of war.
Mostly, this is campaign bluster. Republicans see the Jewish vote as significant in swing states ranging from Florida to Pennsylvania, and an unambiguous stance on Israel as one sure way of making sure evangelicals are primed for November. The Republicans are taking advantage of what appears to be a very large space between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But behind the scenes, the truth is different. According to a number of senior American intelligence and Mideast policy officials, speaking on background, the U.S.'s significantly ramped-up American covert sabotage and non-proliferation campaign has convinced the Israelis that the U.S. is more sensitive about Israel's "red lines" -- the no-way-back developments that the Jewish state can't tolerate and would pre-emptively strike to prevent. This, in turn, fortifies Israel's caution. Despite the hue and cry of Republican candidates, the two sides are actually moving closer together. (That doesn't mean that either country is preparing for action, and the U.S. remains committed to a policy of direct military action only as a last resort.)
Never before have policymakers benefitted so much from blogs, official statements, radio broadcasts and TV, much of it monitored and analyzed by the CIA's Open Source Center. It has alerted the White House and Congress to hints of significant differences between how Iran's clerical establishment and its civilian government want to proceed. Both are committed to Iran's self-declared right to have nuclear technology, but the clerics seem more concerned about clinging to power than they care about the wishes of the international community. Republicans tend to focus on the rhetoric emanating from clerics, and for the most part, Iran's security and intelligence apparatus does take its orders from the clerics.
Iran's civilian government, on the other hand, has little real power and more of a direct stake in the financial health of the country. When Obama told reporters on Tuesday that economic sanctions against Iran are "crippling" and working, he is relying on a solid body of that open-source intelligence suggesting an extreme degree of frustration among Iran's export-dependent business community with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. The clerics, it is widely assumed, will make the call, but Obama and his advisers believe that the growing economic hardship will pressure Iran to back off actually doing something and certainly will slow down their decision-making.
Administration officials have told the Congressional intelligence oversight committees that it does not participate in any active measures against Iranians inside the country. But the CIA's ops arm, the National Clandestine Service, along with the U.S. military, are devoting thousands of person-hours per day working along the periphery of the country, scrutinizing and seizing cargo shipments bound for Iran, tapping the black market for nuclear supplies and buying up spare parts, and maximizing the collection of Iranian signal traffic. By bringing Israel further into the loop on these covert programs, the U.S. hopes to convince its ally that it has a high-definition picture of the current state of the nuclear program and would be able to much more quickly identify if, say, scientists began to create the material needed to manufacture the lens and tamper system that would induce the fission in a bomb.
What's most valuable here is the U.S. mastery of obscure but vital types of intelligence collection that spooks call "MASINT" -- or measurement and signature intelligence. MASINT sensors on satellites, drones, and on the ground can detect everything from the electromagnetic signatures created by testing conventional missile systems to disturbances in the soil and geography around a hidden nuclear facility to streams of radioactive particles that are byproducts of the uranium enrichment process. Put together, the U.S. has a good handle on the nuclear supply chain; it knows what Iran has and doesn't have; it has a good handle on who needs to be where in order for certain things to happen; it knows, probably through National Security Agency signals collection, a lot about the daily lives and stresses of Iran's nuclear scientists. (It would be helpful, of course, if the U.S. could read the encrypted communications between senior officials, but experts outside the government believe that the U.S. does not have this capacity, given that China or Russia probably supplies Iran with its cypher equipment. Then again, perhaps China or Russia built a backdoor into those systems and are covertly sharing traffic with the U.S.; both countries, after all, seem to be cooperating by providing the Americans information about the equipment Iran is looking to obtain from them. There are always lots of perhapses.)
One other big unknown is whether Iran has been able to quickly develop counter-measures against the sensors it found on the RQ-170 drone that helpfully crashed inside their country in December. That drone was built specifically to spy on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, and its sensor suite represents nearly a billion dollars worth of developmental research. But hiding emissions and signatures from any surveillance platform, even if you know how it works, is still very difficult. That gives the U.S. confidence that it has a reasonably accurate picture of enough of the parts of Iran's establishment, and that the U.S. and Israel would have more time than is currently believed in order to prepare an actual strike if Iran began to enrich uranium at levels higher than are suitable for civilian purposes.
Still, what happens if Israel does decide to strike is almost a complete unknown. If Israel does decide to bomb unilaterally, the U.S. assumes that Netanyahu would give Obama a heads-up and then request some sort of help, probably in the form of satellite or drone coverage, or maybe even a link to real-time U.S.-monitoring of Iranian air defenses. It will be very hard for the White House to say no to the request. Though Obama would never admit to being influenced by politics, the closer the U.S. gets to its presidential election, the higher the political consequences if the administration is seen as putting daylight between itself and Israel. Two things work in Obama's favor, though: public opinion polls do not show a clamor for war here, and world opinion continues to isolate Iran. A unilateral strike against Iran -- by Israel, or by NATO (with the U.S. in the lead) --might not provoke the outrage it would have just two years ago in the international community. In Muslim capitals ranging from Cairo to Riyadh to Istanbul, a nuclear Iran is a greater nightmare; don't put too much credence in the Arab World's public reactions before or after an Israeli strike.
Incidentally, contrary to much popular press, both the U.S. and Israel believe that a strike against Iran's nuclear program would not need to involve action against more than a handful of sites, even though Iran has spread its nuclear machinery across its country. The destructive force of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs that the U.S. has given to Israel would almost certainly render those facilities inoperable and perhaps even fatally so.
One irony: While the U.S. has increased the amount of information it shares with Israel about Iran, Israel does not disclose to the U.S. the extent of its covert action programs inside the country. Often, the U.S. government finds out about explosions that kill Iranian scientists at the same time as the world press does. Just as often, the lines between Tel Aviv and Washington open up, and about half the time, the U.S. doesn't necessarily believe that Israel tells the truth when it disclaims responsibility for certain explosions.
So tensions remain. But one reason why Monday's meeting between Netanyahu and Obama ended with less rancor than did their last tete-a-tete is that Israel is growing more comfortable with U.S. policy -- secret U.S. policy.More from GQ: