One way or the other, as a former senior official says of the coming year, “we are entering the final stages of this drama.”
One year ago, Barack Obama convened his National Security Council in the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing to talk about war with Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was publicly threatening to attack Iranian nuclear sites. If Netanyahu went ahead, the U.S. could be dragged into a war on Israel’s terms, long before options to avoid conflict had been exhausted. Under fire from Republicans for being a fair-weather friend to Israel, Obama had scheduled a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and an interview with an American reporter widely read in Israel. The question in the Situation Room that day: What would happen if Obama publicly committed to a war to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?
Obama had never made such a promise in public, and he thought it would help persuade Netanyahu to step back from the brink. But by speaking out, he would be putting the U.S.’s credibility on the line in the global effort to prevent Tehran from getting a weapon. If he promised to go to war and didn’t follow through, other nations in the region, distrusting American assurances of protection, would start their own nuclear programs. Obama said that he was aware of the risk but that he wanted to draw the line in public anyway. On March 4, 2012, Obama told the AIPAC crowd, “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, he said, “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff.”
One year later, Iran has yet to call it. Even as Obama has committed to using military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, he has worked hard to avoid war. Attacking Iran’s nuclear sites could cost American military and civilian lives, set off a wave of terrorist attacks, spike oil prices and sour the U.S.’s relations with Muslims worldwide. So Obama has tried to slow or derail the Iranian program through a combination of diplomacy, sanctions and covert action. He has succeeded in pushing the timeline for war back at least 12 months.
But eventually time will run out. As talks among Iran, the U.S. and other international powers ended inconclusively on Feb. 27, even optimists said Obama’s promise will be put to the test in his second term. The Pentagon has launched the largest buildup of forces in the Gulf since the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, and Iran has boosted security around its nuclear sites and is reportedly handing out shoulder-launched missiles capable of downing civilian airliners to loosely allied terrorist groups in the region. Senior congressional Republicans say they are expecting to be briefed soon on the options and consequences of a U.S. strike.
In the mythology of the American presidency, a Commander in Chief makes tough decisions once, unreservedly, and then acts. Just as often, though, a President acts to avoid tough decisions and then works behind the scenes to steer events, persuade friends and enemies and avoid no-win choices. As the dangerous, complicated drama involving the U.S., Iran and Israel enters its final chapters, Obama will soon face the hardest decision of his presidency. This is the story of how he got here.
The End of Containment
Secretary of defense Robert Gates had spent the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency cleaning up the mess of a poorly planned war in Iraq; he wasn’t going to watch the U.S. stumble into a war in Iran unprepared. So in January 2010, he sent a secret three-page memo to the National Security Adviser, General Jim Jones, that would transform the Obama team’s thinking and planning on Iran.
For the previous year, Obama had been delivering on his dovish campaign pledge to reach out to the regime in Tehran. He beamed in a conciliatory greeting to the entire country on the Persian New Year and had offered unconditional talks. In Cairo that June, he offered to let Iran keep a peaceful nuclear program. But Iran’s leaders rebuffed Obama’s efforts, and in the fall of 2009 the Obama Administration revealed that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment plant deep in a hillside outside the holy city of Qum.
Shortly thereafter, Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, threatened to attack Iran. In private to the Pentagon and the White House, Barak argued even more “aggressively that Israel had to strike,” says a former senior Administration official. Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had threatened Israel; allowing him to get the means to destroy it was unacceptable, Barak and other Israeli leaders argued. Late in the year, the Obama Administration began increasing threats of military force and economic sanctions. At the same time, mysterious cyberattacks began damaging the Iranian nuclear facilities.
But Gates, who had worked for every President since Jimmy Carter, was nearly as alarmed by Washington’s lack of readiness as by the bluster coming from Jerusalem and Tehran. He thought the Obama Administration had not sufficiently planned for a war against Iran and worried that Israel was drawing the U.S. into one unprepared. In his secret memo to Jones, the detailed contents of which have not previously been reported, Gates asked hard questions: Was the U.S. goal to keep Iran from getting a weapon or to prevent it from having the capability to get a weapon? What would an Israeli strike mean for the U.S., and how could the Administration keep Israel from acting? Was the U.S. ready not just to attack but also to defend itself and its allies in case of a war? Most controversial, Gates asked whether the U.S. might be willing to deter and contain Iran if it got a nuke, rather than launch a war to damage its program.
No one at the White House had ready answers to Gates’ questions. But the memo quickly became the table of contents for the Administration’s Iran strategy. Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon set up working groups to plan for diplomacy, covert action, sanctions and military preparedness. Immediately, Obama’s team split over whether a nuclear Iran could be contained or should be attacked.
“There was a debate within the Administration over prevention vs. containment,” says Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Middle East adviser at the time. Those in favor of planning for containment, led by Gates, argued that another conflict in the region would hurt the U.S., according to senior officials who participated in the discussions. The U.S. had lived with nuclear adversaries before, this side argued, and its vastly superior nuclear force could deter Iran from using its nuclear weapons. Most of all, an attack would set Iran back only a few years, strengthen support for the mullahs’ regime at home and fracture international opposition to it abroad.
On the other side, several top Obama aides, including Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief Leon Panetta, argued that containment wouldn’t work. Iran’s regional enemies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would not accept American assurances of protection against a nuclear-armed Iran and would pursue their own nukes; Saudi Arabia could get them directly from Pakistan, a close ally. The dynamics of Cold War containment, wherein a “balance of terror” kept the peace between the U.S. and Russia, wouldn’t apply in the Middle East, the interventionists argued. “You’re in a region where conflict is the norm, not the exception, where everybody’s going to feel they have to have a finger on the trigger and where no one feels they can afford to strike second,” says Ross.
The most compelling argument for Obama, the former law professor, was that a nuclear Iran would spell the end of the international regime limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Obama had written about the regime in college and had made denuclearization his primary focus in the Senate. He made bolstering the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a top priority in his first two years as President, and in his second term, Obama is planning to dispatch top aides to negotiate a large nuclear-warhead reduction with Russia.
The debates continued in the Oval Office, with only the President, Donilon, Gates and Clinton present. Clinton argued against containment; Gates advised the President to keep containment as an option, a senior official familiar with the discussions says. “Gates did not want Iran to have the Bomb and was in favor of exerting far greater pressure on the Iranians,” Ross says. “But he was against the use of force if all other means failed.” Clinton and Gates declined to be interviewed for this story. A former Gates adviser who remains close to him says, “In the 4½ years he was Secretary of Defense, Gates never advocated containment, nor did he ever advocate taking the military option off the table. Indeed, at his urging and with the President’s approval, the Pentagon took a number of steps to be better prepared to implement the military option if required.”
Aides now say Obama was always against containment. But Ross says it took much longer for him to decide. “The President took his time making a decision on this, as he should,” Ross recalls. Even as Gates continued to press his case, the Administration quietly accelerated its planning for war.
The Covert Campaign
Then Obama caught some breaks. in June 2010, Iran admitted that a cleverly designed computer virus, which came to be known as Stuxnet, had infected the computers controlling its uranium-refining centrifuges. During his presidency, George W. Bush had authorized Operation Olympic Games, a cyberattack designed to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. The Stuxnet virus was not only destructive but ingenious. As it commanded the Iranian centrifuges to spin themselves into pieces at high speed, it sent messages to the systems and engineers controlling the machines indicating that they were working properly. The U.S. has not claimed credit, but independent analysts who obtained copies of the virus after it accidentally spread from the Iranian computers to the outside world in 2010 say the virus appears to be the work of an American-Israeli collaboration. Many of the details of Operation Olympic Games were first reported by New York Times reporter David Sanger.
The cyberwar continued. In May 2012, Iran acknowledged that a virus called Flame had infected its computers, turning them into surveillance devices that control microphones and cameras and relay data to the attacker. Another program, called Wiper, erased hard drives at Iran’s Oil Ministry last spring. Computer analysts and media reports suggest that the U.S. and Israel are behind the cyberwar.
Iran suffered other setbacks. At least four Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in a string of targeted bombings and shootings since 2010. The U.S. has denied involvement. Israel has not commented.
The other big blow to Iran came from an old-fashioned source: diplomacy. After his failed outreach to Tehran in 2009, Obama managed to rally China and Russia behind tough sanctions at the U.N. in June 2010. Past efforts to apply economic pressure had failed in Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere. This time they really took a bite. From 2010 to 2011, Congress approved measures cutting off much of Iran’s banking network from the rest of the world. The bills threatened a boycott of any company or bank that did business with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program or those responsible for it. Most countries, faced with the stark choice of cooperating with either Iran or the U.S., chose the U.S. The business of Iran’s blacklisted banks “almost completely dried up,” says Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. Last year sanctions passed by Congress and the European Union helped cut Iran’s oil-export market from 20 countries to six and its sales by volume in half. The value of the Iranian currency dropped in half relative to the dollar in 2012. Inflation is at 27.4%.
The Road to War
For all the setbacks, though, Iran has continued to expand its nuclear program. In February it announced it was installing new, high-efficiency centrifuges at one nuclear facility. Ahead of recent talks in Kazakhstan, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, gave a rallying speech to the Iranian Air Force, which would be hard hit in any U.S. attack. “Negotiations with America will not solve any problems,” Khamenei declared. At this point, few in the West would disagree with that.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once defined diplomacy as “saying ‘Nice doggy, nice doggy’ until you can find a stick.” Through luck and hard work, Obama has bought time for a massive buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf. General James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, began accelerating the U.S. military increase in the Gulf a year ago. In April, the Air Force deployed a squadron of F-22 stealth fighters to a base in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Navy has doubled the number of its minesweeping ships from four to eight and of its patrol boats from five to 10 in the past two years. It has deployed combat search-and-rescue helicopters, unmanned minesweeping submarines and high-tech surveillance systems. Most threatening, it dispatched to the Persian Gulf a second aircraft-carrier battle group that had been destined for the Pacific.
The U.S. is also building up other forces in the region. In early 2012, it expanded a military base in Kuwait, stationing two Army infantry brigades, or 15,000 troops, there. That is still a token force, but the U.S. is pre-positioning covert and special-operations capabilities and beefing up facility defenses. It has been operating a drone base out of Saudi Arabia. In July 2012, it deployed the U.S.S. Ponce, a converted transport ship that can serve as a floating special-operations base, complete with helicopter pads and several hundred bunk beds. It has delivered long-range X-band missile-defense radars to Israel and Turkey and has reached an agreement with Qatar to deploy a system there too. The U.S. has reportedly asked the U.K. for access to bases on Cyprus, Diego Garcia and Ascension Island for use in an attack on Iran.
Iran, too, has taken preparatory actions, erecting new perimeter fences around its underground enrichment plant at Qum. It recently launched its own cyberattack against the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, and has collaborated with Hizballah in Syria during its unrest. Yemeni officials recently claimed that Iran has been providing non–state actors in Yemen with shoulder-launched missiles capable of taking down commercial airliners. In total, the Gulf has seen in two years the largest military buildup since March 2003.
Netanyahu, who faces new political challenges at home, has rolled Israel’s deadline back to late spring or early summer, and recent reports say Israeli intelligence thinks Tehran may be on an even longer fuse. The well-regarded U.S. think tank the Institute for Science and International Security says the earliest Iran could get the Bomb is mid-2014. Experts credit the cyberattacks with significantly setting back Iran’s nuclear program. And Iran itself has slowed down its efforts, converting some enriched uranium to a form that can be used only in research, not in weapons, thereby keeping its total enriched uranium under the amount needed to make a nuclear weapon. To make up for the drop in Iranian oil exports and a possible rise in crude prices, Saudi Arabia has stepped up production.
If both sides seem to be wishing for peace even as they threaten war, it’s because the costs of conflict would be so high. An overt U.S. attack to set back Iran’s nuclear program would likely mean the deaths of American service members–and civilians too, if Iranian-backed terrorist groups downed commercial airliners or launched other attacks against soft targets. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the cost of open war to the world economy could be $1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, when spiking energy prices and trade disruptions are factored in. And war could wipe out the years of post-Iraq diplomatic repair work to the U.S.’s reputation. For Iran, a full-fledged American attack could mean the devastation of its nuclear program and much of its armed forces, plus unimaginable costs to its economy. And still it might not give up its nuclear ambition. Little in the latest round of talks changed that assessment. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first trip abroad, warned that the failure of diplomacy could have “terrible consequences.”
He, like every current and former official interviewed for this story, believes Obama will resort to war if necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But only Obama knows for sure. In his AIPAC speech last year, after ruling out containment, Obama said, “I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I’ve seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency.” One way or the other, as a former senior official says of the coming year, “we are entering the final stages of this drama.”