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Final Countdown

Did the United States just set a March deadline for war with Iran?

If you have followed the covert and diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon over the past five years, you know that new or noteworthy movements from Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Washington are few and far between. Iran makes fantastic claims about advances in its civilian nuclear program, many of which are subsequently confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Israel threatens to attack Iran in a thinly veiled effort to impel the P5+1 negotiating group (China, Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) to increase economic and diplomatic sanctions; and American officials repeatedly pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, while the U.S. military gradually strengthens its capabilities in theater and deepens its cooperation with Gulf states in order to contain Iran.

Underpinning this rhetorical bluster is the recognition that negotiations to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA -- to demonstrate that the Iranian civilian nuclear program does not have possible military dimensions, forbidden by the NPT Safeguards Agreement signed by Iran in 1974 -- are not sustainable. Experts predict that the nuclear dispute between the P5+1 (predominantly the United States) and Iran will ultimately be resolved -- either through negotiations or the use of force. Some (including yours truly) have speculated this resolution will come this year, or the following year, or the year after that. During a press conference on Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged this enduring forecasting problem: "I think that it will happen during 2013, but I thought that it will happen during 2012, and saw what happened -- and 2011."

Last week, however, the United States made a significant shift in its strategy. This move, if it plays out, could finally result in the long-rumored and much-debated military attack on Iran's known nuclear sites. In a prepared statement to the agency's Board of Governors, Robert A. Wood, chargé d'affaires to the IAEA, said:

Iran cannot be allowed to indefinitely ignore its obligations by attempting to make negotiation of a structured approach on PMD [possible military dimensions] an endless process. Iran must act now, in substance.... If by March Iran has not begun substantive cooperation with the IAEA, the United States will work with other Board members to pursue appropriate Board action, and would urge the Board to consider reporting this lack of progress to the UN Security Council.

Later that day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Wood's mention of a March deadline. Her reply contained several interesting points:

What was meant about the March reference was either about the IAEA and its continuing work or the fact that we finished our election and now would be a good time to test the proposition that there can be some good-faith serious negotiations before the Iranians get into their elections, which are going to heat up probably around the March period, heading toward a June election.

It's a difficult matter to predict, because it really depends upon how serious the Iranians are about making a decision that removes the possibility of their being able to acquire a nuclear weapon or the components of one that can be in effect on a shelf somewhere and still serve as a basis for intimidation...We'll see in the next few months whether there's a chance for any kind of a serious negotiation.

Here, Clinton implies that the reason to "test" Iran now is not because of progress toward alleged weaponization, but because there is a window for negotiations, after the U.S. election and before the Iranian election. It is interesting that the Obama administration deemed it wrong to "test" Iran during the heat of the U.S. presidential elections but thinks it plausible that, during similar electoral uncertainty, Iranian leaders will reach a broad strategic agreement limiting the country's uranium-enrichment program.

Then, Clinton introduces a vague new goal for negotiations. Until now, Obama administration officials have repeated three claims about U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.

First, Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. In February 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified, "We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." But, he added, "We do not know...if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." The following February, Clapper stated, "We don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon."

Second, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will make the final decision. As Clapper phrased it: "The decision would be made by the Supreme Leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of -- I don't think you want a nuclear weapon at any price."

Third, because Iran's nuclear program is an intelligence collection priority, U.S. officials would know when the Supreme Leader made this decision and what sort of evidence would reveal his intentions. Clapper: "[A] clear indicator would be enrichment of uranium to a 90 percent level." The declared nuclear sites where such enrichment occurs are subject to IAEA physical inventory verifications, which track progress in Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpiles and are published in quarterly reports.

Why did the Obama administration decide to set this new March deadline? Perhaps, like the Bush administration, it has simply become tired of confronting Iran. Here, the Bush administration's approach to Iraq is worth recalling. In a recent Foreign Policy piece reviewing U.S. policy options toward Iran, Steven Hadley, deputy national security adviser during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, wrote:

The U.S. military action [in Iraq] was not, as many suggest, either a war of choice or a war of preemption. It was, rather, a war of last resort. After 12 years of diplomacy, 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, increasingly targeted economic sanctions, multiple international inspection efforts, no-fly zones over both northern and southern Iraq, the selective use of U.S. military force in 1998, and Saddam Hussein's rejection of a final opportunity to leave Iraq and avoid war, the United States and the international community were out of options.

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.  

ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Offensive Maneuver

Why does Leon Panetta hate democracy?

Once upon a time, at the end of significant and sustained global military commitments, the White House sought to reduce a defense budget that had been awarded steady increases year after year. Ordered to make cuts by a White House-Congress budget summit agreement, the Pentagon undertook a series of reviews to adjust the U.S. military's role in a transformed international environment. The National Military Strategy determined: "The real threat that we now face is the threat of the unknown, the uncertain. The threat is instability and being unprepared to handle a crisis or war that no one predicted or expected." The secretary of defense further warned that the United States still faced "[a] world that is full of instability, where there are threats and challenges to a stable world."

Despite its newfound concern over uncertainty, instability, and the unknown, the Pentagon's updated military strategy allowed for a 25 percent reduction in defense spending over a five-year period. With the federal budget deficit having increased more than 50 percent over the preceding half decade, certain members of Congress sought even larger defense cuts of 40 percent over five years. During a contentious hearing, one of those congressional members -- the House Budget Committee chairman -- warned that "The days of big spending, free-wheeling defense budgets are clearly over." To which the secretary of defense fired back: "We've already cut the living daylights out of the defense budget, Mr. Chairman."

Sound familiar? Readers with long memories will recognize the year and the players: 1991, and the fight was between Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta over the first post-Cold War defense budget. Cheney won, and Pentagon spending was reduced by 25 percent over five years.

Today, the White House and congressional Republicans are racing to find an agreement to avoid sequestration, which would mandate $492 billion in defense cuts -- roughly $55 billion per year -- from fiscal years 2013 through 2021. This would be in addition to the $487 billion in lower spending that the Pentagon proposed over the same period. Even if sequestration is avoided, there reportedly will be limited additional reductions in U.S. military spending -- cuts that many analysts and defense contractors believe are inevitable.

Like Dick Cheney 21 years ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has engaged in an exhaustive effort to avoid both sequestration and any further reductions in the Pentagon's budget. The distinction between Panetta and his predecessors, however, is in the tactics he has employed to protect his bureaucratic turf. Panetta has belittled the process of deliberative democracy, told Congress how it should reduce the federal debt, and declared that the Pentagon cannot survive another penny in cuts.

Panetta has attacked the legislative branch of government for refusing to pass the defense budget that he requested on the timeline that he requires. In doing so, he compared service members' "extraordinary examples of courage and sacrifice" to members of Congress who lack the "political courage" and "political guts" to avoid sequestration and pass defense authorization bills. As he declared in November 2011: "Dammit, if there are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to be able to defend this country, then surely there have to be elected leaders who are willing to make the tough choices that are important to solving the problems in this country." 

According to Panetta, America's elected leaders are not only cowards, they are national security threats. In August he noted: "Frankly, we also face the threat to our national security from a gridlocked political system that is unable to solve the serious problem that confronts this country." Last week, he further remarked: "I have to tell you one of the most disturbing things that I talk about -- one of the national security threats is the question of whether or not the leaders we elect can, in fact, govern." This is an absurd and dangerous charge, and one that Panetta should answer for if he ever appears before Congress again. Panetta acts as if it is his role to provide oversight of Congress, rather than the other way around.

Another Panetta tactic is telling Congress exactly what federal spending should be cut, singling out entitlements -- 90 percent of which go to the elderly, the seriously disabled, or members of working households. Starting with his first appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, he instructed Congress: "If you're going to be responsible in dealing with the deficit, you have got to consider the mandatory programs." Two weeks ago, he offered: "I think the responsibility now, both Republicans and Democrats, has to be to look at the entitlement area, what savings can be achieved on entitlements." He also said, "I want to see some progress with regards to both entitlements as well as on revenues."

Imagine if Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius -- whose fiscal year 2013 budget request is less than 15 percent of Panetta's -- told Congress that it should tackle the federal debt by eliminating the bomber leg of the nuclear triad? Just as nobody would take her serious for offering her opinion on federal spending outside of her agency, Congress should ignore Panetta.

Underlying Panetta's instructions to Congress is his belief that there is no excess defense funding. In February, when asked by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad if there were any additional cuts he could imagine, Panetta replied: "What we have put in place I think represents an important step that we should stick to." Last week he declared: "My view right now is that we have done our part with regards to deficit reduction. And I sure don't intend to put anything additional on the table." The Pentagon's acquisition czar recently echoed Panetta, warning: "There aren't a whole lot of things left in the budget that we can cut."

Panetta repeatedly offers two justifications for why the Pentagon cannot tolerate additional budget cuts. The first is that -- just as Robert Gates did before him -- Panetta directed the military to conduct "ongoing and new efficiency initiatives," which led to the $487 billion in suggested reductions. This purported act of self-sacrifice belies the fact that every federal agency receiving discretionary funding conducted an internal, "strategy-driven" review to identify where they could cut spending. The truth is that military spending grew 70 percent in the 10 years after 9/11, and equals 57 percent of federal discretionary spending. If the White House and Congress decide to reduce the federal debt through additional discretionary spending cuts, the defense budget will have to be included.

The other justification from Panetta -- that I and others have noted -- is the chronic habit of threat inflation. Unlike predecessors such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who primarily warned about "unknowns" and "uncertainty," Panetta's catalogue of nightmares thickens in accordance with his time spent in the E-Ring and now ranges from the specific ("cyber Pearl Harbor") to the imprecise ("the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East" and "turmoil elsewhere") to the non-existent ("the nuclear threat in Iran"). In public remarks at the Center for a New American Security last week, he used the word "threat" 30 times.

While decrying Congress for "poor stewardship and poor leadership," it is worth considering Panetta's performance over pressing problems within the Pentagon under his watch and authority: sexual assaults of service members have continued to increase, as have suicides and discharges of senior uniformed officials for ethical lapses. Secretary Panetta has ordered Pentagon-wide reviews to counter these disturbing trends, and he speaks out against the military culture that allows them to continue. However, if leadership is "the acceptance of responsibility for an outcome," as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, defines it, then Panetta has failed.

Among his many selfless contributions over six decades of public service, Leon Panetta was the House Budget Committee chair, White House chief of staff, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Today, however, he is the secretary of defense, and under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, he is empowered to be "the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense," with "authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense." These are monumental tasks for any one person, and rather than disparaging elected leaders and calling for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, Panetta and his successors should dedicate their attention to seeing them through.

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