Last week, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, confirmed a no-longer-surprising fact: the Pentagon has sent the White House a menu of options for going to war with Iran.
But that doesn't mean the military thinks bombing Iran would be a good idea. "It's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran," Schwartz's boss, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CNN last month, adding that his advice applied to Israel as well as the United States. "A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn't achieve their objectives," Dempsey said.
It's hard to find a high-rankingU.S. militaryofficer who thinks war with Iran is a good idea. They point out that it is unclear that bombing Iran would succeed in stopping the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear technology, and that an attack would almost surely provoke Iranian retaliation and touch off a longer, wider war.
But that hasn't stopped President Obama from rattling the saber.
"When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say," he told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic last week. "As president of the United States, I don't bluff."
Part of the reason Obama sounds more hawkish than his generals is that he hopes the threat of military action can help bring Iran around. But he's also trying to navigate a delicate situation with a leader who's ostensibly one of his closest allies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, have said that they don't believe economic sanctions and negotiations are working fast enough to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Barak has warned that Iran's nuclear facilities will soon be so deep underground that they will be in a "zone of immunity," safe from military attack — or at least safe from the scale of attack that Israel could muster.
Once that happens, Israel would have to depend on the United States for protection, and that's not a position the Israelis want to be in. So Netanyahu and Barak have publicly suggested that it may soon be time for Israel to strike, despite the dangers that an attack would bring.
Are the Israelis serious? They say they are, and the Obama administration is taking them at their word. Over the past two months, a parade of U.S. defense officials has visited Israel. This week, Netanyahu is visiting Washington — hoping, according to Israeli media reports, to win a promise from Obama that the United States will prevent Iran from even attaining the capability to build nuclear weapons. Until now, the United States has said it will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but Israel wants the red line moved to the less easily defined point of "capability."
For all Netanyahu's bluster, Israeli officials still say war with Iran is something they'd like to avoid. An Israeli attack on Iran would almost certainly lead not only to direct retaliation from Tehran, but also a ground war with Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia that rules southern Lebanon. A poll of Israelis released last week found that only 19% favor attacking Iran without U.S. support, and only 42% favor an attack even with U.S. support.
Even Netanyahu has said that the outcome he'd prefer is an Iranian retreat in the face of economic sanctions, with no military action by anyone.
But is that possible?
The United States and its European allies have been working on proposals for the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, which are planned to begin next month. The aim, Obama said in his interview with the Atlantic, is to induce Iran's leaders "to make a strategic calculation" to delay "whatever potential breakout capacity they may have."
That probably means some kind of deal under which Iran would agree to limit its enrichment of uranium to levels well below what's needed for nuclear weapons and submit to international inspections that would reassure Israel and other countries that it is not pursuing secret military projects.
The idea, said Dennis Ross, a former Obama advisor, would be to "stop the clock" and freeze Iran's nuclear technology at a level that doesn't threaten anyone else. But that would likely require the United States and its allies to soften their previous demand that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment as a first step.
Obama noted that Iranian leaders have frequently insisted they aren't seeking nuclear weapons. "So it doesn't require them to knuckle under to us," he said. But it would require them to allow more intrusive inspections than they have accepted in the past.
The Obama administration contends that a deal like that is more possible than ever before, because economic sanctions against Iran have finally begun to bite. But to obtain an agreement with Iran, the United States needs Israel to stay its hand.
The term "brinkmanship" was coined during the Cold War to describe threats of military action that, if implemented, would lead to disaster for both sides. It's ironic that in this case, the brinkmanship is coming from America's ally, Netanyahu, and it carries the potential of calamity not only for Iran and Israel, but for the United States as well.