By Chris McGreal
Officials in key parts of the Obama administration are increasingly convinced that sanctions will not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear programme, and believe that the US will be left with no option but to launch an attack on Iran or watch Israel do so.
The president has made clear in public, and in private to Israel, that he is determined to give sufficient time for recent measures, such as the financial blockade and the looming European oil embargo, to bite deeper into Iran’s already battered economy before retreating from its principal strategy to pressure Tehran.
But there is a strong current of opinion within the administration – including in the Pentagon and the state department – that believes sanctions are doomed to fail, and that their principal use now is in delaying Israeli military action, as well as reassuring Europe that an attack will only come after other means have been tested.
“The White House wants to see sanctions work. This is not the Bush White House. It does not need another conflict,” said an official knowledgeable on Middle East policy. “Its problem is that the guys in Tehran are behaving like sanctions don’t matter, like their economy isn’t collapsing, like Israel isn’t going to do anything.
“Sanctions are all we’ve got to throw at the problem. If they fail then it’s hard to see how we don’t move to the ‘in extremis’ option.”
The White House has said repeatedly that all options are on the table, including the use of force to stop Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, but that for now the emphasis is firmly on diplomacy and sanctions.
But long-held doubts among US officials about whether the Iranians can be enticed or cajoled into serious negotiations have been reinforced by recent events.
“We don’t see a way forward,” said one official. “The record shows that there is nothing to work with.”
Scepticism about Iranian intent is rooted in Iran’s repeated spurning of overtures from successive US presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, who appealed within weeks of coming to office for “constructive ties” and “mutual respect” .
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim this week that Iran loaded its first domestically-made fuel rod into a nuclear reactor, and Iran’s threat to cut oil supplies to six European countries, were read as further evidence that Tehran remains defiantly committed to its nuclear programme. That view was strengthened by the latest Iranian offer to negotiate with the UN security council in a letter that appeared to contain no significant new concessions.
If Obama were to conclude that there is no choice but to attack Iran, he is unlikely to order it before the presidential election in November unless there is an urgent reason to do so. The question is whether the Israelis will hold back that long.
Earlier this month, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, told the Washington Post that he thought the window for an Israeli attack on Iran is between April and June. But other official analysts working on Iran have identified what one described as a “sweet spot”, where the mix of diplomacy, political timetables and practical issues come together to suggest that if Israel launches a unilateral assault it is more likely in September or October, although they describe that as a “best guess”.
However, the Americans are uncertain as to whether Israel is serious about using force if sanctions fail or has ratcheted up threats primarily in order to pressure the US and Europeans in to stronger action. For its part, the US is keen to ensure that Tehran does not misinterpret a commitment to giving sanctions a chance to work as a lack of willingness to use force as a last resort.
American officials are resigned to the fact that the US will be seen in much of the world as a partner in any Israeli assault on Iran – whether or not Washington approved of it. The administration will then have to decide whether to, in the parlance of the US military, “pile on”, by using its much greater firepower to finish what Israel starts.
“The sanctions are there to pressure Iran and reassure Israel that we are taking this issue seriously,” said one official. “The focus is on demonstrating to Israel that this has a chance of working. Israel is sceptical but appreciates the effort. It is willing to give it a go, but how long will it wait?”
Colin Kahl, who was US deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East until December, said: “With the European oil embargo and US sanctions on the central bank, the Israelis probably have to give some time now to let those crippling sanctions play out.
“If you look at the calendar, it doesn’t make much sense that the Israelis would jump the gun. They probably need to provide a decent interval for those sanctions to be perceived as failing, because they care about whether an Israeli strike would be seen as philosophically legitimate; that is, as only having happened after other options were exhausted. So I think that will push them a little further into 2012.”