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Obama’s Slippery Slope to Military Strikes on Iran

Today, POLITICO published our newest Op-Ed, “Obama’s Slippery Slope to Strikes on Iran” (excerpts below but also worth reading in full on POLITICO.com).

Our piece was prompted by the partial leak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ January 2010 memo on Iran to the New York Times last week and subsequent statements by Gates and one of his key deputies, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Fluornoy.  As we note in our Op Ed, these developments reveal two crucial points:

First, the Obama administration is deeply divided about its Iran policy, beyond the current effort to get new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council.  Second — and more important — there is a serious risk that President Barack Obama may eventually be maneuvered into ordering military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

Gates’ memo — which has been widely discussed since its partial leak to the New York Times but not especially well understood by the punditocracy — is consistent with the Defense Secretary’s views on Iran, going back to his service in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.  Gates is deeply skeptical that attacking Iranian nuclear targets will accomplish anything of strategic significance, and believes the potential downsides — including retaliation against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — could be severely damaging to America’s regional position.

As we write in POLITICO,

Gates also seems to believe that the United States can ‘contain’ an Iran that has mastered uranium enrichment but stops short of actually building a nuclear weapon.  Even if Iran detonates a device, in Gates’s view it should still be eminently containable.

In sum, both Gates and America’s senior uniformed military leadership believe that the United States does not need to go to war over Iran’s nuclear program.

But senior officers privately express concern that the Pentagon’s preference for containment over military confrontation with Iran is not getting the traction it should in the Obama Administration’s policymaking process.

In this context, Gates’ January 2010 memo was intended “to leapfrog the interagency process and ‘tee up’ for presidential decision a number of specific items required for serious pursuit of a containment strategy.”

But the Pentagon’s strong preference for containment is opposed by powerful figures at the White House — “including Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross, senior director for the central region (including Iran).”  The “senior officials” who leaked Gates’ memo

were clearly seeking to use their selective description to catalyze more robust planning for potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets — the very option that Gates has consistently opposed.

This explains Gates’ public claim that his memo had been “mischaracterized” by the leaker.  It also explains Fluornoy’s later statement that an attack against Iran is “off the table in the near term.”  (Though, after White House intervention, Gates’ spokesman walked back Flournoy’s comment.)

For some at the White House, “containment is problematic because it would be interpreted in Israel and pro-Israeli circles here as giving up on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.”  But, we go on to note that

Others in this camp may actually believe that Washington should be preparing for military action against Iran.

As [Dennis] Ross told us before he returned to government service in the Obama administration, President George W. Bush’s successor would probably need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

Pursuing diplomatic initiatives early in Obama’s tenure, Ross said, would be necessary to justify potential military action to domestic and international constituencies.

That is precisely what the administration has done — first, by pursuing halfhearted diplomatic initiatives toward Tehran, then, when Iran did not embrace them, blaming Iran for the impasse.

Adopting containment as the administration’s posture toward Iran might undermine some White House officials’ efforts to prepare the political ground for an eventual presidential decision approving military strikes.

We conclude with this argument:

Obama’s overly hedged approach to diplomacy with Tehran has succeeded only in giving engagement a bad name.

Now, he has surrendered the high ground of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that he courageously staked out during the 2008 presidential campaign, leaving militarized containment as his administration’s “moderate” (even “dovish”) alternative to more coercive options.

Gates is correct that a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation would be severely damaging to Washington’s strategic position.  But containment is an inherently unstable and dangerous posture — perhaps likely to end up sparking a U.S.-Iranian war.

Meanwhile, failing to pursue serious, strategically-grounded engagement with Tehran could continue to leave the administration’s Middle East policies in free fall — accelerating the erosion of U.S. influence in this critical region.

There must be a better way to do foreign policy than this.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 26 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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