President Barack Obama drew a bipartisan standing ovation from members of Congress last week when he warned Iran that pursuing nuclear weapons is a red line the Islamic Republic shouldn’t cross.
“Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” Obama said to sustained applause during his Jan. 24 State of the Union address.
While the Obama administration’s warnings to Iran may sound like an echo of the Bush administration’s drumbeat for war with Iraq a decade ago, they differ in two critical ways, according to current and former officials and analysts.
The Obama administration’s motives, they said, are the opposite of Bush’s, and they are consistent with the U.S. intelligence community’s nearly unanimous analysis of Iran’s nuclear efforts and ties to international terrorism.
The Bush administration was seeking to build support for a war to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, while the Obama administration is trying to avert a war by warning Iran of the perils if it proceeds toward producing nuclear weapons, said three administration officials. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the matter.
Second, the current administration’s allegations about Iran are largely consistent with the consensus in the 16-agency U.S. intelligence community, which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper outlined to the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday.
Iran, he said, “is expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities, which can be used for either civil or weapons purposes.” Still, he said: “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
The Bush administration’s charges about Iraq’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ties to al-Qaeda were based largely on information provided by Iraqi exiles and collected outside of regular intelligence channels by independent cells overseen by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Many U.S. and other intelligence professionals distrusted the exiles’ assertions, many of which eventually were found to be false.
The Obama administration “is being more conservative about Iran than the Bush administration was about Iraq,” Jon Alterman, a former State Department official who now heads the Middle East Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies policy center, said in an e-mail.
“That probably partly has to do with the fact that we’re not in the disorienting period that followed 9/11, and partly that the difficulty of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made ground wars a less attractive option than one might have appeared earlier,” he said. “Different presidential temperaments and notions of leadership play a role here, too.”
Obama, who took office in 2009 determined to seek common ground with Iran, has taken a harder line as Iran’s leaders have ignored or rebuffed public and secret U.S. approaches, said one of the administration officials.
As Iran has continued its nuclear program, most recently firing up a new, deeply buried uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, the president and other officials have stepped up their warnings to Tehran.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” on Jan. 8 that the U.S. is preparing a military option against Iran “in a timely fashion.”
“The Iranians should never think that there’s a reluctance” to use force to stop them, Dennis Ross, who served two years on Obama’s National Security Council and a year as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, said in an interview Jan. 9.
That drumbeat has three audiences, said two of the administration officials -- in Iran, at home and in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other officials have repeatedly said all options are on the table in ensuring Iran doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons.
“The administration, even though it does not want a war, is talking tough about Iran not only in the hope of swaying the Iranians but also because of the political need to do so and to try to hold off pressure from warhawks in both the United States and Israel,” said Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA officer who now teaches at Georgetown University, in an e-mail.
In an election year, when the president and his party need support of Democrats who back Israel, Obama needs to hold off Israel from attacking Iran without his being seen as doing so, said a former Bush administration official, who spoke anonymously because he still has a security clearance.
There is no certainty that Obama will succeed in deterring Iran from a decision to produce nuclear weapons or Israel from taking military action to prevent that outcome.
“I believe the President believes that building the pressure offers the best way to change Iran’s behavior through non-military means,” Ross said in an e-mail. “But because I believe he is serious about the objective, he is ready to use force if all else fails.”
As tensions rise, administration officials said they are increasingly concerned that a miscalculation by either side could trigger both a war that sends oil prices skyrocketing and a worldwide terror campaign by Iran and its proxies such as the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.
Already, Clapper testified, there is evidence that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials “have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”
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