The U.S. is harder on its ally than on Iran's nuclear program.
Barack Obama is fond of insisting that he "has Israel's back." Maybe he should mention that to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In remarks to journalists in London quoted by the Guardian, General Martin Dempsey warned that any Israeli attack on Iran would "clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran's nuclear programs." He also said economic sanctions on Iran were having an effect and needed more time to work, but that the good they were doing "could be undone if [Iran] was attacked prematurely."
And to underscore the firmness of his opposition to an Israeli strike, the Chairman added that "I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it."
We don't know what exactly Gen. Dempsey thinks American non-complicity might entail in the event of a strike. Should the Administration refuse to resupply Israel with jets and bombs, or condemn an Israeli strike at the U.N.? Nor do we know if the General was conducting freelance diplomacy or sending a signal from an Administration that feels the same way but doesn't want to say so during a political season.
Whatever the case, the remarks were counterproductive and oddly timed, with this week's report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran's nuclear programs haven't been slowed in the least by U.S. or international sanctions. In fact, they are accelerating.
Iran has now installed 2,140 centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility near the city of Qom. Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%—or 87% of the enrichment needed to reach bomb-grade levels—has grown from effectively zero to some 200 kilograms in a year. Only 50 more kilograms of 20% uranium are needed to produce a bomb, and that's saying nothing of Iran's additional large stockpiles of reactor-grade uranium that can also be enriched to higher levels of purity.
Administration officials have also repeatedly told the media that they aren't entirely sure if Iran really intends to build a bomb. We'll grant that ultimate intentions are usually unknowable, especially in closed societies such as Iran's.
Yet as the IAEA noted, "the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." These activities, by the way, "continued after 2003," according to the report. This puts paid for the umpteenth time the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that misleadingly claimed the contrary.
No wonder the Israelis are upset—at the U.S. Administration. It's one thing to hear from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he wants to wipe you off the map: At least it has the ring of honesty. It's quite another to hear from President Obama that he has your back, even as his Administration tries to sell to the public a make-believe world in which Iran's nuclear intentions are potentially peaceful, sanctions are working and diplomacy hasn't failed after three and half years.
The irony for the Administration is that its head-in-the-sand performance is why many Israeli decision-makers believe they had better strike sooner than later. Not only is there waning confidence that Mr. Obama is prepared to take military action on his own, but there's also a fear that a re-elected President Obama will take a much harsher line on an Israeli attack than he would before the first Tuesday in November.
If Gen. Dempsey or Administration officials really wanted to avert an Israeli strike, they would seek to reassure Jerusalem that the U.S. is under no illusions about the mullahs' nuclear goals—or about their proximity to achieving them. They're doing the opposite.
Since coming to office, Obama Administration policy toward Israel has alternated between animus and incompetence. We don't know what motivated Gen. Dempsey's outburst, but a President who really had Israel's back would publicly contradict it.