So, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta just told told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that his biggest worry right now is that Israel will attack Iran in the next few months. Panetta then spelled out that the likeliest window for an Israeli attack would be April, May or June, before Iran stores enough enriched uranium deep enough underground so that only the U.S. would have the ability to stop the bomb-making. Perhaps Iran should send him a thank you note for the information?
Let’s hope that Panetta had some brilliant hidden agenda in talking like this to the press; perhaps a secret plan for imminent American air strikes that would render an Israeli attack unnecessary, or cover for an Israeli plan to attack tonight. But more likely Panetta simply meant what he said, and he meant to say it. In other words, while Iran keeps building the bomb, his biggest worry is how to stop Israel from acting in its own defense.
That’s fine if you’re dead certain that within the next few months Iran’s regime is either going to collapse, or throw wide open its nuclear program — a la Qaddafi — and invite the U.S. in to pick up the entire nuclear kit and haul it off to be examined at leisure in Tennessee. Does anyone believe that? The immediate collapse of the Tehran regime is a long shot. The notion of the Tehran regime amiably surrendering its nuclear program is utterly improbable, especially after the NATO-assisted demise of Qaddafi — who, had he held on to his nuclear kit, in the manner of North Korea, might have avoided being killed like a rat near a Libyan drainpipe. (Note: Qaddafi survived for years under sanctions. What persuaded him to give up his nuclear program was fear of suffering the fate of Saddam Hussein. What finally brought him down was use of force.)
Ignatius, in his column on Panetta’s big worry, writes that “President Obama and Panetta are said to have cautioned the Israelis that the United States opposes an attack, believing it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the [nuclear] threshold.” And if sanctions are helpful, but not sufficient, then what? It can’t be reassuring to Israelis to read, in the same Ignatius column on Panetta, that administration officials do insist that “if Israel’s population centers were hit, the United States would feel obliged to come to Israel’s defense.” If Israel’s population centers were hit… ? That would be more than a tad too late.
The reality is that sanctions are hurting the Iran regime, which is all to the good — but years of sanctions haven’t brought it down, and they are not stopping its nuclear program. And while U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran are becoming ever more extensive, Iran keeps finding ways to adapt. On balance, this is costing Iran, but it it is not costing Iran’s regime enough. Iran’s oil provides a lot of people with a lot of incentives to help violate sanctions, or at least look the other way. Meantime, Panetta himself just told CBS’s 60 Minutes that Iran, if it wants to make a nuclear bomb, is probably one year away from doing it. To be sure, Panetta added that it could take Tehran another year or two to fit a warhead on a delivery vehicle. But there’s not a lot of safety margin in these probabilities, especially if you consider that Iran has business pals, such as North Korea, helpfully working on the logistics of such projects.
If the U.S. administration wants to stop Israel from attacking Iran, the way to do it is not to block the Israelis, but to preempt them — with American strikes. Former CIA chief James Woolsey is urging that the U.S. begin military preparations for strikes specifically targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, which he says is “at the heart of this regime,” running the Basij militia, “the nuclear, space and ballistic missiles program, as well as the Quds Force.” Now there’s an idea; and if Panetta’s biggest worry is how to persuade Israel to stand down, U.S. strikes on the IRGC would be much more effective than giving interviews to the Washington Post.