What the hell is going on between the United States and Israel on Iran? [UPDATED]

This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program.  On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz.  On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions.  On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1. 

And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel.  Some weird s**t has been going down.  Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment.  In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:

The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.

“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”

“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists.  In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials: 

There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....

We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.

Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:

The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....

A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)

I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening.  If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out

As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons: 

1)  Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;  

2)  Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States  can recruit for its own intelligence;

3)  The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;

4)  The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;

5)  The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping. 

I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.

Developing... in some very bizarre ways. 

UPDATE:  The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on.  Some key parts:

U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.

President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....

Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.

"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.

Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.

The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.

Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Well, this is just peachy:

The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.

The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....

In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.

"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."

Daniel W. Drezner

Intellectual clean-up in the realist aisle, please!

Over the break, I see that John Mearsheimer got the glowing Robert D. Kaplan treatment in The Atlantic.  Kaplan is a master of this genre, writing my favorite profile of Samuel Huntington a little more than a decade ago.  In his Atlantic essay, Kaplan smartly observes that John's real intellectual legacy should be his 2001 masterwork The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The best grand theories tend to be written no earlier than middle age, when the writer has life experience and mistakes behind him to draw upon. Morgenthau’s 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, was published when he was 44, Fukuyama’s The End of History was published as a book when he was 40, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a book when he was 69. Mearsheimer began writing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics when he was in his mid-40s, after working on it for a decade. Published just before 9/11, the book intimates the need for America to avoid strategic distractions and concentrate on confronting China. A decade later, with the growth of China’s military might vastly more apparent than it was in 2001, and following the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its clairvoyance is breathtaking.

Note to self:  start outlining awesome, earth-moving grand theory now. [Note to Drezner:  sorry, but you already dug your own grave when it comes to intellectual legacy--ed.]

It's not surprising that Kaplan, a geopolitics wonk, loves Tragedy, with its emphasis on the "stopping power of water" and all.  The essay is worth reading in full -- but seeing as how I'm quoted without attribution I've done a bit of research on realism, I can't let this casual assertion go by without some pushback: 

[I]n a country that has always been hostile to what realism signifies, [Mearsheimer] wears his “realist” label as a badge of honor. “To realism!” he says as he raises his wineglass to me in a toast at a local restaurant. As Ashley J. Tellis, Mearsheimer’s former student and now, after a stint in the Bush administration, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, later tells me: “Realism is alien to the American tradition. It is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world. But realism never dies, because it accurately reflects how states actually behave, behind the façade of their values-based rhetoric.”...

For Mearsheimer, academia’s hostility to realism is evident in the fact that Harvard, which aims to recruit the top scholars in every field, never tried to hire the two most important realist thinkers of the 20th century, Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. But at Chicago, a realist like Mearsheimer, who loves teaching and never had ambitions for government service, can propound theories and unpopular ideas, and revel in the uproar they cause. Whatever the latest group-think happens to be, Mearsheimer almost always instinctively wants to oppose it—especially if it emanates from Washington.

This notion of realism being alien to the United States has been a recurring theme of realists, since, well, realism asserted itself in the American academy.  It's impossible to have a conversation with John Mearsheimer longer than 15 minutes without him bringing up this point. 

The thing is, it's a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation.  Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul's campaign is doing well because it's sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy.  More substantively, this canard is why I researched and wrote "The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion" a few years ago.  My principal conclusion from that essay: 

Americans do hold some liberal aspirations for their conduct across the globe, and believe that morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract. However, surveys about foreign policy world views and priorities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies all reveal a strong realist bent among the mass American public. The overwhelming majority of Americans possess a Hobbesian world view of international relations. Americans consistently place realist foreign policy objectives— the securing of energy supplies, homeland security—as top foreign policy priorities. Objectives associated with liberal internationalism—strengthening the United Nations, promoting democracy and human rights—rank near the bottom of the list. On the uses of force, experimental surveys reveal that Americans think like intuitive neorealists; they prefer balancing against aggressive and rising powers while remaining leery about liberal-style interventions. On foreign economic policy, Americans think of trade through a relative gains prism, particularly if the trading partner is viewed as a rising economic power. Surveys and polling do suggest that Americans like multilateral institutions, but they appear to like them for realist reasons—they are viewed as mechanisms for burden-sharing.

It is somewhat more accurate to say that America's foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik -- though even here, things can be exaggerated.  The recent TRIP survey, for example, revealed that realism might not be the most popular paradigm among IR scholars, but it still commands a healthy fraction of academics, and commands an even greater fraction of attention in international relations courses.  

This might seem like a small point, but it's an important one -- because to be honest I'm fed up with realists whining that everyone is against them.  If there is one thing that academic realists have in common, it's a strong, cultivated sense of victimhood.  "Our field despises us! Americans don't like us!  The foreign policy community hates us!" 

Cut it out already.  There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy -- starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students -- that evinces realist principles.  There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals -- starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes -- that walk the realist walk.  Realists advocate a doctrine that genuinely resonates with a large swath of the American mass public.  If realists fail to popularize their own ideas, then perhaps they should look in the mirror before invoking the "everyone hates us so we must be right" card.