While no one in the Barack Obama administration knows whether Israel will strike Iran's nuclear program, America's war planners are preparing for a wide array of potential Israeli military options -- while also trying to limit the chances of the United States being drawn into a potentially bloody conflict in the Persian Gulf.
"U.S.-Israeli intelligence sharing on Iran has been extraordinary and unprecedented," a senior Pentagon war planner told me. "But when it comes to actually attacking Iran, what Israel won't tell us is what they plan to do, or how they plan to do it. It's their most closely guarded secret." Israel's refusal to share its plans has persisted despite repeated requests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a senior Pentagon civilian said.
The result is that, at a time of escalating public debate in both the United States and Israel around the possibility of an armed strike on Iran, high-level Pentagon war planners have had to "fly blind" in sketching out what Israel might do -- and the challenges its actions will pose for the U.S. military. "What we do is a kind of reverse engineering," the senior planner said. "We take a look at their [Israeli] assets and capabilities, put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we would act if we had what they have. So while we're guessing, we have a pretty good idea of what they can and can't do."
According to several high-level U.S. military and civilian intelligence sources, U.S. Central Command and Pentagon war planners have concluded that there are at least three possible Israeli attack options, including a daring and extremely risky special operations raid on Iran's nuclear facility at Fordow -- an "Iranian Entebbe" they call it, after Israel's 1976 commando rescue of Israeli hostages held in Uganda. In that scenario, Israeli commandos would storm the complex, which houses many of Iran's centrifuges; remove as much enriched uranium as they found or could carry; and plant explosives to destroy the facility on their way out.
Centcom, which oversees U.S. military assets in the Middle East, has been given the lead U.S. role in studying the possible Israeli strike. Over the past year its officers have met several times at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and with Fifth Fleet naval officers in Doha, Qatar, to discuss their conclusions, the sources say.
The military analysis of Israeli war plans has been taking place separate from -- but concurrent with -- the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the United States present Tehran with a "red line," which, if crossed by Iran's nuclear program, would trigger a U.S. military strike. "That's a political question, not a war question," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "It's not in our lane. We're assuming that an Israeli attack could come at any time."
But it's not clear that Israel, even with its vaunted military, can pull off a successful strike: Netanyahu may not simply want the United States on board politically; he may need the United States to join militarily. "All this stuff about 'red lines' and deadlines is just Israel's way of trying to get us to say that when they start shooting, we'll start shooting," retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told me. "Bottom line? We can do this and they can't, because we have what the Israelis don't have," retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner said.
One thing is clear: the U.S. military, according to my sources, currently has no interest in a preventive strike. "The idea that we'll attack with Israel is remote, so you can take that off your list of options," former Centcom commander Joe Hoar told me. Nor will the United States join an Israeli attack once it starts, the senior U.S. planner said. "We know there are senior Iranians egging for a fight with us, particularly in their Navy," a retired Centcom officer added. "And we'll give them one if they want one, but we're not going to go piling in simply because the Israelis want us to."
That puts the military shoulder to shoulder with the president. Obama and the military may have clashed on other issues, like the Afghan surge, but when it comes to Iran, they are speaking with one voice: They don't want Iran to get a nuclear weapon, they don't want Israel to start a war over it, and they don't believe an Israeli attack should automatically trigger U.S. intervention. But, if they are to avoid becoming part of Israel's plans, they first need to know what those plans are.