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General Dempsey's Remarks Should Not Come as a Surprise

JINSA Report #: 

September 5, 2012

With his most recent comments in London last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, put a greater distance between the United States and Israel over a potential attack against Iran. "I don't want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it," Dempsey said, thereby clearly indicating that the differences between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government surpass the previously declared red lines.

If the strategic goal remains prevention and not containment of Iran's nuclear weapons program, then Gen. Dempsey's remarks hampered this objective. They notified the world that the United States and Israel are not united on this front.

Gen. Dempsey's remarks should not come as a surprise as he was publicly reiterating what we already know to be the Obama administration's position. That is, the United States would not like to see an attack on Iran at this time. This reminds us of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's public rumination in February that Israel would strike Iran in the spring. One must object, however, to the real purpose of communicating this message publicly and not through private channels.

It is noteworthy that these remarks were made during the same week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report confirming that Iran doubled its uranium enrichment capacity in an underground facility.

JINSA has long argued that the United States and Israel must demonstrate the credibility of a military threat against Iran. As necessary and important as other tools of statecraft are - such as economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts - those who speak against military action undermine all other strategies. This latest public display of an American administration distancing itself from its closest ally in the Middle East, facing an existential threat, has reinforced the perception of a weakened alliance. And the Iranians have taken note: "all options are on the table" has become a toothless mantra.

2012 has been marked by global and domestic developments that are likely to influence the next decade of American war fighting capabilities and our nation's pivotal role in the Middle East. With the most recent publication of the IAEA report and the gathering of the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran, the United States should have reaffirmed Israeli redlines, stated its commitment for a second strike capability, and further increased its military presence in the region. It should have taken advantage of the trip to London to reinforce the international alliance against a nuclear Iran. Instead it chose to do the opposite. By doing so, the United States undermined its own efforts to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons program.

The objective of economic sanctions and other statecraft options is to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The objective of these tactics is not to stop Israel from attacking Iran. That would simply be a by-product of a successful prevention strategy. Israel does not want war, yet faced with an existential threat (in the same interview, Gen. Dempsey confirmed that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel), it may not have a choice. If it chooses to attack Iran, Israel is likely to carry out a surgical operation and not a full-scale war. Its goal would not be to launch an all-out attack on Iran, but instead to destroy their nuclear sites.

Iranian strategy is to get to the bomb as safely as possible. The pace is not the essence, the attainment of the bomb is. The mullah regime may be flexible about the timetables, but they are very unlikely to give up the option to build. They may make concessions, but only as long as they are not diverted from their strategic goal.

Anyone who asserts that Iran has not decided to build the bomb does not understand this theocratic regime. Most Israeli military strategists concur with Gen. Dempsey that such an attack would delay but not stop Iran's nuclear program. The delayed time frame may be exactly what the international community needs in order to prepare for a new Iranian leadership.

Sanctions are important but only with absolute isolationism and a very credible military capability. If we stood firm, they may have blinked. Instead, we blinked and now they have very little reason to modify their plans.

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