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US' military option against Iran may have moved up from the bottom of the list09:35 GMT, August 9, 2010 Over the course of July 2010, a few voices in the United States called for a reassessment of a military option against Iran. Some of these figures refused to identify themselves by name, suggesting that they are part of the security or political establishment. Some former senior officials, however, did identify themselves by name. Most notable among them was the former head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, who explicitly stated in an interview with CNN that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is not the United States' worst option. Hayden noted that when he served as the head of the CIA (until February 2009), the military option was at the bottom of the list, but it now seems more likely since all the steps by the United States have proven insufficient to stop Iran from continuing on its path towards a nuclear weapons capability. Hayden's remarks echoed former senators Daniel Coats and Charles Robb and General Charles Wald, former deputy commander of the United States European Command, who as early as September 2009 published a joint article that called for a strong approach towards Iran: if talks with Iran fail, it is incumbent upon the United States to abandon negotiations, prepare for military action in the Gulf area, consider the option of imposing a blockade on Iran, and as a last resort, consider a military strike on Iran, the inherent dangers notwithstanding.
The US administration does not share this position, repeating that while all options, including the military option, are on the table, attacking Iran is a poor choice, dangerous, and therefore not desirable in light of the current circumstances. Between the lines, though, it appears that a certain change is emerging in the American security establishment or among certain elements within it regarding the military option. The change in tone was reflected in part in a recent interview by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Despite his recurring reservations about military measures, Mullen cast the military options as "an important option," and stated that if the administration reached a moment of decision and the need for a plan for military action arises, one is already in place.
The confirmation of the existence of military plans, even if no surprise, meshes well with April 2010 statements by administration officials that the American security establishment is engaged in the preparation of military alternatives, which will be presented to the president in the event that diplomacy and sanctions do not prove effective. An Israeli source also said recently that the United States did not have a military option a year ago but currently the Americans are exhibiting a serious approach to plans for a military procedure, which has now become a viable option. American defense sources confirmed that US Central Command, which is responsible for most of the Middle East, is progressing significantly in planning the targets of an air strike in Iran.
The change of tone occurring within and outside the administration regarding the military option stems primarily from the growing skepticism concerning the effectiveness of the sanctions, including the most recent round that has been imposed upon Iran. The sentiment among the various parties in the United States is that at the end of the day, sanctions alone will not stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, due to the fact that it would prove difficult to attain international cooperation broad enough to implement and enforce them, as well as the fact that Iran will be determined to continue its nuclear activity despite the sanctions. CIA director Leon Panetta expressed this skepticism in a recent statement that sanctions will apparently not deter Iran from its quest to attain nuclear weapons.
Other voices are joining these outspoken ones from the United States. Moderate Arab states, especially the Gulf states, are revealing increasing concern regarding Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons and the United States' failure to impede it. Reports are that the Saudis raised the issue of a military move in Iran during talks with the US administration, making it clear that they cannot live with the prospect of a nuclear Iran. The United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington was even reported saying that the risk of a nuclear Iran is far more serious than the risk that would be created following a military action against Iran.
Do these sentiments reflect a change in the American administration's stance regarding the military option? As far as one can tell, not yet. The administration still stresses the extreme risks that it believes are entailed by a military option, and this assessment has not changed. It is obvious that as long as the administration believes that political moves, including the most recent round of sanctions, have not yet been exhausted, it will not tap a military option. Since evaluating the effectiveness of the new sanctions will require time, perhaps even a considerable amount of time, this basically means that at least in the course of the coming months, the administration will not actively consider the military option and will express the hope that Israel will not take independent military action.
But the voices expressed in the United States, including by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are significant. Even if the administration continues to disapprove of military measures at this juncture, the administration and other elements in Washington apparently feel the need to draw attention to a military option in order to attain a number of critical objectives. One is to beef up the pressure of the sanctions on Iran with a vague threat of military action if Iran chooses to be uncooperative. Iran's renewed threats of military retaliation in response to an attack indicate that Iran has taken the American threats seriously. The second objective is to increase the pressure on other governments, specifically Russia and China, to cooperate with the implementation of the sanctions, with the implicit message that if they do not achieve the desired results, the administration will have no choice but to resort to military action. The third objective is to begin setting the stage for military action, both in the international and the domestic US arena, in the event that diplomatic measures fail and the need for military action arises.
It is still too early to tell if these talks about a military option signal some sort of a change in the administration's position. The widening public debate in the United States on this issue suggests that as the technological timetable of the Iranian nuclear plan gets progressively shorter with no successful diplomatic solution to stop it, the American administration – along with the Israeli government – will be stuck between a rock and a hard place: they must choose between taking military action to stop Iran and sitting back while Iran continues its program of uranium enrichment and, further down the road, accept the reality of a nuclear capable Iran. Out of this conundrum, the impression from various reports is that even if the scales are definitely tipped against military action, it has now earned more weight than in the past. Indeed, the fact that General Hayden, until recently a leading professional figure in US security establishment and intelligence community, explicitly took the side of military option is important to the public debate.
By Ephraim Kam, Institute for National Security Studies
INSS Insight No. 197