Former senior U.S. defense official Michele Flournoy cautioned Israel against the destabilizing effects of a premature, unilateral strike on Iran. (U.S. Defense Department)
TEL AVIV — U.S. war planners have developed “a viable contingency” for Iran that U.S. President Barack Obama will not hesitate to authorize if the military option is the only way to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, according to a former senior Pentagon official.
In two separate addresses at a prestigious policy conference here, Michèle Flournoy, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, publicly cautioned Israel against the destabilizing and delegitimizing effects of a premature, unilateral strike on Iran.
“Having sat in the Pentagon, I can assure you of the quality of the work that has been done. ... The military option for the president is real,” said Flournoy, who left the Pentagon in February and continues to advise the Obama re-election campaign.
Speaking May 29 and 30 at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Flournoy sought to alleviate Israeli concerns that Washington would ultimately prove powerless to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Barack Obama is a president that says what he means and does what he says. ... I can assure you we do not have a policy of containment,” she said. “The United States is willing to make the hard call when U.S. military force may be required.”
In a rare and candid public review of Washington’s Iran strategy, Flournoy noted that more than 40,000 U.S. troops are positioned in the region, with two carrier strike groups deployed in the Arabian Gulf. Such military presence is part of a carefully timed strategy that, through the coming months, will continue to focus on a combination of increasingly crippling sanctions and diplomacy.
Flournoy said the U.S. security community estimates that “any military strike in its most wildly successful incarnation” would only result in a one- to three-year setback for Iran’s nuclear weapon program.
“It would put time back on the clock, but it wouldn’t solve the problem in any meaningful way,” she said.
Instead, Flournoy urged Israeli leaders to think strategically and focus on the much larger “generational” campaign of diplomacy, sanctions and nonproliferation acts that will be required “for the day after” future use of the military option.
Emphasizing that Washington understands Israel’s sovereign right to self-defense, Flournoy nevertheless urged Israel to keep its powder dry as the crippling effects of international sanctions start to take root.
“If Israel would launch an attack prematurely, it would undermine the ability of the international community to come together in the critical long-term campaign,” Flournoy said. “It would ultimately hurt our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser and coordinator for U.S. policy planning on Iran, also warned Israel of the consequences of a premature strike without support from Washington and key international allies. If, as a result of a precipitous Israeli attack, Iran retaliated with terror attacks on American citizens, Israel would be viewed as dragging the U.S. into a war with Iran.
“If there were attacks on the American homeland, how many Americans might think that Israel dragged us into a war and now shopping malls were being blown up?” Blackwill said in his May 30 INSS address.
But urgings by U.S. policy experts here appeared to fall on deaf ears, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterating that the Israeli government “will make decisions on issues vital to the Jewish people’s future and security by itself.”
In his May 30 INSS address, Barak flagged the inability of the international community to act decisively to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, despite overwhelming consensus that his regime has lost legitimacy. If the international community cannot act in the face of “clear, sharp and simple” matters such as Syria, how can Israel count on international acts to prevent a nuclearized Iran, Barak asked.
“The difficulty in translating [declarations of world leaders] into decisive, cohesive action has to tell us something with respect to other issues,” Barak said in obvious reference to Iran.
He added, “When people talk about nuclear capabilities, you cannot wait until the capabilities are acquired, built or deployed and only then act. Because then it is too late. You will be unable to act. There will be nothing you can do. … Therefore, the crucial moment is the last moment [when] the metaphorical sword is pressed closely against your neck.”
Barak echoed statements expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the conference, insisting that Iran is playing the international community for a patsy in ongoing negotiations toward a nuclear enrichment deal.
“We are convinced that the Iranians are trying to deceive the entire world,” Barak said. “Israel, unlike other countries, does not have the option — I repeat, Israel does not have the option to ignore this challenge.”