(Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
Pressure from the Israel lobby over Iran is mounting on the Obama administration, and it’s working–at least rhetorically. After weeks of some pushback against the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran, the administration has noticeably hardened its tone. The shift in tone comes as the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is set to host a conference that will be primarily focused on Iran.
Obama administration officials are escalating warnings that the U.S. could join Israel in attacking Iran if the Islamic republic doesn’t dispel concerns that its nuclear-research program is aimed at producing weapons.
Four days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Washington, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told reporters that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict.
“What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area,” Schwartz told reporters in Washington yesterday.
The hawkish note struck by Schwartz comes after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Benjamin Netanyahu will pressure “Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain ‘red lines.’”
The comments by Schwartz aren’t the only sign of a shift in tone. The Washington Post runs a story today that has U.S. officials bragging about their ability to bomb an underground nuclear facility in Iran:
Western spy agencies for years have kept watch on a craggy peak in northwest Iran that houses one of the world’s most unusual nuclear sites. Known as Fordow, the facility is built into mountain bunkers designed to withstand an aerial attack. Iran’s civil defense chief has declared the site “impregnable.”
But impregnable it is not, say U.S. military planners, who are increasingly confident about their ability to deliver a serious blow against Fordow should the president ever order an attack.
U.S. officials say they have no imminent plan to bombard the site, and they have cautioned that an American attack — or one by its closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel — risks devastating consequences such as soaring oil prices, Iranian retaliation and dramatically heightened tension in a fragile region.
Yet as a matter of physics, Fordow is far more vulnerable than generally portrayed, said current and former military and intelligence analysts. Massive new “bunker buster” munitions recently added to the U.S. arsenal would not necessarily have to penetrate the deepest bunkers to cause irreparable damage to infrastructure as well as highly sensitive nuclear equipment, probably setting back Iran’s program by years, officials said.
The piece ends with an official wondering, “If you can target the one piece of critical equipment [centrifuges] instead of the whole thing, isn’t that just as good?”
And then there was Hillary Clinton, who told Congress yesterday that the “president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” Capability is the key word here–in line with the language used in AIPAC’s number one “ask” of legislators after the conference. The “ask” is requesting senators to sign on to the Lieberman-Graham resolution, which has been harshly criticized as a potential backdoor to war. Two weeks before Clinton’s comments, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy explained why the word “capability” is so important (emphasis in original):
A new Senate effort to move the goalposts of U.S. policy to declare it “unacceptable” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability – not a nuclear weapon, but the technical capacity to create one – gives AIPAC the opportunity to make a choice which all can observe. If the Lieberman resolution becomes an ask for AIPAC lobbyists at the March AIPAC policy conference, then the world will know: AIPAC is lobbying Congress for war with Iran…
The resolution seeks to establish it as U.S. policy that a nuclear weapons capability – not acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but the technical capacity to create one – is a “red line” for the United States. If the U.S. were to announce to Iran that achieving “nuclear weapons capability” is a red line for the U.S., the U.S. would be saying that it is ready to attack Iran with military force in order to try to prevent Iran from crossing this “line” to achieve “nuclear weapons capability.”
Clinton’s comments are clearly political–aimed at aligning the Obama administration’s rhetoric with AIPAC’s. And yes, it’s true that the rhetorical shift is also aimed for Israeli consumption, to convince Israel that the US can strike Iran if it wants to, and that Israel should not strike on their own.
But this rhetoric puts the administration that much closer to Israel’s aggressive posture on Iran. Sooner or later, that paints you into a pro-war box–and a situation that could spiral out of control in the form of a disastrous Middle East war.