Where does the United States stand these days with respect to the Iranian issue? And what is it discussing with Israel? These important questions have not been given serious enough attention in the public discourse in Israel recently. It seems that the various signs indicating new and significant emphases and nuances in the approach adopted by the Obama Administration cannot penetrate through the wall of Israel's obsessive preoccupation with itself alone.
The parties to the domestic discourse [in Israel] satisfy themselves with the assumption that what the US is interested in most of all is peace and quiet until, and perhaps even after the [upcoming presidential] election. They are reiterating the mantra that the nuclear issue does not interest the [American] Administration the way it interests Israel, and that the Administration is thus liable to accept the situation of a nuclear Iran and even give up the sanctions [against Tehran]. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak insist on drawing the media's attention to the Iranian issue with the torrent of talk about a looming Israeli assault. And the media commentators seem to be enjoying the persistent probing into the question of attack, all the more so when the prospect of potential failure due to the [Israeli] home front unpreparedness is hovering in the air.
In view of the above and given the narrow-minded debate going on in Israel, it is all the more interesting to see what is happening in the US, the major and real player in the efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program. There are a number of facts that are worth noticing when trying to assess the American stance, beyond and independently from the effect of the upcoming election.
The picture emerging in the US since the beginning of 2012 is contrary to common assumptions in Israel, that of a country presenting a far more resolute stance with respect to Iran than before. This stance is reflected first and foremost in the [American Administration's] decisions on a series of "biting" sanctions that target the Central Bank of Iran.In fact, it's the pressure exerted on Iran by the American and European harsh economic sanctions that forced Iran to return to the negotiation table in the spring of 2012. And while the talks [with Iran] held by the US along with the other powers from April to June have yielded no result, the US adopted a different tone in the talks. For the first time, it set clear-cut conditions for Iran in that round of talks and did not give in to the Iranian pressure to mitigate the sanctions. In fact, following the unsuccessful recent round of talks, even more severe sanctions are currently under consideration. At the same time, the US has been reinforcing its military presence in the Gulf. For several months now two [US Navy] aircraft carriers have been routinely patrolling the Gulf. This is an unusual situation. What's more, when one of these vessels left the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz earlier this year, Iran sent off a message warning the United States against returning the vessel to the Gulf. However, not only did another [US Navy] aircraft carrier enter the Gulf, it did so accompanied by two war ships — one British and one French. In response to Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, the Obama Administration clarified that, as far as the Americans were concerned,such a step would mean crossing a red line. And the Iranians backed off. More recently, we have learned that the American "bunker busting" bomb is ready for use [and will be put to use] in case the need arises. According to assessments, this "bunker buster" is capable of penetrating through the [deeply buried underground nuclear] facility in Fordow.[Fordow, near the city of Qom, is the site of an underground uranium enrichment facility.]
As to the American coordination and collaboration with Israel, the common assumption in Israel with regard to this point, too, is that what the US is really interested in right now is peace and quiet, at least until the upcoming election. And that its aim is actually to prevent an Israeli attack [on Iran]. According to this narrative, the recent visits of senior American officials to Israel, and apparently also the visits of senior Israeli officials to the United States have all been designed to deliver [to Israel] one and the same message: "Don't attack!" However, it's hard to believe that, to that end, so many visits were required. It is much more reasonable to assume that the talks between the American and Israeli officials centered around other issues as well — probably the exchange of opinions and coordination of positions with respect to various options of operation against Iran's nuclear program. According to reports, in his recent visit to Israel [in mid July], the U.S. National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, presented [Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with] the American contingency plan for a possible attack on Iran. A series of American Administration officials have pointed out on various occasions in the past few months that the level of coordination between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue was never before as high as it currently is.
Obama has explicitly declared that the United States is committed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And while Obama would rather avoid a military flare-up in the last months before the [US presidential] election, and although the Israeli panic over the Iranian issue is not what he would have wished for at this moment, he is also displeased with the Iranian conduct and quite unhappy about his own failure to successfully cope with it. No wonder then that the American Administration has been showing a far more rigid approach towards Iran in the past year.
Two critical questions have still remained without a clear answer: Can the United States identify in time the point at which Iran decides to move on to the next phase of actual production of nuclear weapons? And if and when the United States identifies such a move, will it act militarily? Be that as it may, it stands to reason that various options are being examined with Israel, and possibly with other partners, like Britain and France, as well. A well thought out military operation, jointly launched by a number of countries, would not necessarily hurt Obama's prospects of reelection. Indeed, it may well be that quite the opposite is true.
Dr. Emily Landau is a senior research associate at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), where she is also director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project.