Opinion: What ‘All Options on the Table’ Really Means

The United States has repeatedly said that “all options” remain “on the table” regarding Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Israel has said the same thing, and both repeated that refrain this week. But using the same words doesn’t mean they have the same intentions, especially regarding timing.

The last few weeks have highlighted the difference between the US and Israeli governments on this issue. Recently American military officials have said to the press, or else been reported by the media as saying in private, comments that undermine the possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

And while it could be a delicate tap-dance to try and keep Iran guessing and prevent tensions from spiraling out of control, the overall direction of the US stance seems more to be an effort to discourage Israel from attacking Iran.

The latest such comments were from the US head of the military, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran is a “rational actor.” He also waffled between discouraging an attack on Iran at this point and trying to emphasize cooperation with Israel and that all options are being considered.

Now it’s true that bluntly accusing Iran of being irrational could unintentionally set the groundwork for military action now, an unwise move from the top US military official.

On the flipside, Dempsey’s “rational” comment implies that the US feels they can live with Iran getting the bomb, since they will be “rational” in how they approach such power. The statement implies the US sees Iran like the Soviets in the Cold War and that the fear of a retaliatory nuclear strike will prevent Iran from ever using nukes. It would have been better had he said nothing, than to imply that.

Especially since that’s not the message slithering out of Iran. Despite what Iranian officials say about not seeking nuclear weapons, the Fars News Agency quoted the widow of an assassinated Iranian scientist affiliated with their nuclear program as saying her husband’s “ultimate goal” was “the annihilation of Israel.” While it’s unclear if he planned to do that by nuclear means, or if he even could have been part of such a process, the statement is deeply troubling.

Dempsey’s statement, when combined with some other sentiments and reported reactions to Israel possibly striking Iran, implies a clear difference of opinion between the US and Israel on the level of the threat posed by Iran and the timeframe left to stop it.

Regional expert Dr. Jonathan Spyer correctly noted that the West doesn’t want a war with Iran. This is most likely due to the ensuing economic nightmare that would emerge from skyrocketing oil prices. But that reluctance is no secret.

“The Iranians are aware that there is a desperate desire on the part of the West to avoid the necessity of confrontation,” Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC-Herziliya in Israel, told The Mideast Update this week. He noted that Iran therefore has managed to buy time by playing a back-and-forth game with the West that alternates between hostility and fake cooperation that creates false hope.

Still, the truth is coming out. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released this week what was almost a surprisingly detailed press release—from their standards anyway—on Iran’s refusal to cooperate, highlighting concerns over possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.

Whether Iran has something to hide that’s nuclear, or just doesn’t want to open up its other secrets to the United Nations, doesn’t change the fact that the UN nuclear watchdog is increasingly upset and frustrated with the Iranians. Considering their caution in the past and the implications of their public pronouncements, things are getting bad indeed when the IAEA is sounding even such a small alarm.

At some point, the point of no return will be reached. The Israelis are sounding more and more like that time is coming. Public statements from President Shimon Peres reacting to claims from Haaretz that he doesn’t support a military option imply Israel sees their threat of military action as very important at the least. When even a moderate like Peres feels the need to emphasize that “all options are on the table,” it’s clear Israel means it.

However, Israel can’t mean it as well as the US can. An Israeli strike, The New York Times pointed out recently, will be very complicated. A US one is comparatively easier and has a higher chance of success.

That doesn’t mean a war is necessary, or that it must happen now. War is always a last resort and should be used as such. At the same time the US does need to get on the same page as Israel, at least in private, by sharing intelligence and joining them in planning what to do next.

It helps pressure Iran that both the US and Israel are willing to say “all options are on the table.” It just would help a lot more if they were sitting at the same table when they say it.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, February 23, 2012)