President Barack Obama says a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable” and insists “all options are on the table.” It should be obvious to everyone what he means by the latter even if he’s only bluffing.
Yet Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sounds like he wants the military option off the table. “You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” he said. “And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region.”
That’s true, of course, but making a statement like that in public, which will surely be heard by the rulers of the Islamic Republic, makes it sound like he’s flinching and doesn’t want to go through with it.
There is a small chance that the Iranian government might restrain itself from crossing the nuclear threshold if its leaders truly believe it faces an American attack if it goes ahead. I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s possible. A threat from the world’s only superpower is not like a threat from, say, the Saudis or even the Israelis, especially after the NATO intervention in Libya surprised just about everyone.
It’s the president’s call. He’s the commander in chief. If Obama orders military strikes against Iranian weapons facilities—an unlikely event, but one never knows—Panetta’s reluctance will be irrelevant. Meanwhile, it’s better for the United States to appear eager to strike Iran even if it’s not true. Let Tehran sweat a little and only proceed if it dares.