It is difficult to understand why the Bush administration decided to abandon a successful containment strategy of Iraq that cost $14.5 billion a year and no loss of life, for another that will ultimately cost over $3 trillion and the lives of 4,422 U.S. troops. Undertaking a war of choice without definitive evidence of an active chemical or biological weapons program -- let alone a nuclear program -- or threats to the U.S. homeland was an enormous strategic miscalculation with dire consequences.
The confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program dates back to August 2002, when it was first revealed that Iran had begun a covert uranium-enrichment program in the late 1980s. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly stated what its Director General Yukio Amano declared last week: "Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."
At some point in February or early March of 2013, there will be two significant events relating to a potential countdown to an attack on Iran. Clapper will testify before the House and Senate as part of his annual threat briefings, and the IAEA will release its next quarterly report. Unless there is new intelligence, it is likely that Clapper will maintain his assessment that the Supreme Leader has not made the decision to pursue a bomb -- meaning to enrich enough uranium to bomb-grade level that can be formed into sphere that could be compressed into a critical mass. Meanwhile, absent breakthrough in the P5+1 negotiations or a decision by Tehran that unprecedented transparency with the IAEA will make things better, Amano will again report that there is inadequate cooperation.
In that case, the IAEA Board of Governors could refer Iran to the UN Security Council, which might pass a more robust version of Resolution 1929, which imposed sanctions. But then what? If the Supreme Leader does not make a decision to pursue a bomb (which the United States claims it would detect), and if Iran does not produce sufficient highly-enriched uranium for a bomb at a declared site (which the IAEA would detect), then what would trigger an attack by the United States and/or Israel? What would the "redline" be?
The answer depends greatly on whether the timeline to attack Iran is based on Israel's national interest and its military capabilities, or those of the United States. Israeli officials have stated at various times that redlines should be "clear" (without providing clarity) and that they "should be made, but not publicly." One also said, "I don't want to set redlines or deadlines for myself." Since November 2011, Israeli officials have also warned about a "zone of immunity," which Barak has described as "not where the Iranians decide to break out of the non-proliferation treaty and move toward a nuclear device or weapon, but at the place where the dispersal, protection and survivability efforts will cross a point that would make a physical strike impractical."
It is unclear how dispersed, protected, or survivable Iran's nuclear program would have to be, but Secretary Clinton's warning of "components...on a shelf somewhere" could indicate that the Obama administration is moving toward the zone of immunity logic. But what are these components, how many would be required to assume "weaponization," and how would this new intelligence be presented as a justification for war? In addition, it is tough to make the case for going to war with Iran because it refused to concentrate its nuclear sites (that are under IAEA safeguards) in above-ground facilities that can be easily bombed.
Previously, U.S. officials have been less eager than the Israelis to define a specific redline, largely because the two countries have different perceptions of the Iranian threat and vastly different military capabilities. Setting a March deadline provides some certainty and perhaps coercive leverage to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. But declaring deadlines also places U.S. "credibility" on the line, generating momentum to use force even if there is no new actionable intelligence that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. Based on what we know right now, that would be a strategic miscalculation.