This article cross-posted from Consortium News
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
at NATO conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 4 (Official Defense Department photo)
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius this week that he believes Israel was likely to attack Iran between April and June, it was ostensibly yet another expression of alarm at the Israeli government's threats of military action.
But even though the administration is undoubtedly concerned about that Israeli threat, the Panetta leak had a different objective. The White House was taking advantage of the current crisis atmosphere over that Israeli threat and even seeking to make it more urgent in order to put pressure on Iran to make diplomatic concessions to the United States and its allies on its nuclear program in the coming months.
The real aim of the leak brings into sharper focus a contradiction in the Barack Obama administration's Iran policy between its effort to reduce the likelihood of being drawn into a war with Iran and its desire to exploit the Israeli threat of war to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran.
The Panetta leak makes it less likely that either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iranian strategists will take seriously Obama's effort to keep the United States out of a war initiated by an Israeli attack. It seriously undercut the message carried to the Israelis by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last month that the United States would not come to Israel's defense if it launched a unilateral attack on Iran, as IPS reported on Feb. 1.
A tell-tale indication of Panetta's real intention was his very specific mention of the period from April through June as the likely time frame for an Israeli attack. Panetta suggested that the reason was that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had identified this as the crucial period in which Iran would have entered a so-called "zone of immunity" -- the successful movement of some unknown proportion of Iran's uranium enrichment assets to the highly protected Fordow enrichment plant.
But Barak had actually said in an interview last November that he "couldn't predict" whether that point would be reached in "two quarters or three quarters or a year."
Why, then, would Panetta deliberately specify the second quarter as the time frame for an Israeli attack? The one explicit connection between the April-June period and the dynamics of the U.S.-Israel-Iran triangle is the expiration of the six-month period delay in the application of the European Union's apparently harsh sanctions against the Iranian oil sector.
That six-month delay in the termination of all existing EU oil contracts with Iran was announced by the EU on Jan. 23, but it was reported as early as Jan. 14 that the six-month delay had already been adopted informally as a compromise between the three-month delay favored by Britain, France and Germany and the one-year delay being demanded by other member countries.
The Obama administration had also delayed its own sanctions on Iranian oil for six months, after having been forced to accept such sanctions by the U.S. Congress at the urging of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The administration recognized that six-month period before U.S. and EU sanctions take effect as a window for negotiations with Iran aimed at defusing the crisis over its nuclear program. So it was determined to use that same time frame to put pressure on Iran to accommodate U.S. and European demands.
By the time the news of the postponement of the U.S.-Israeli military exercise broke on Jan. 15, Panetta was already prepared to take advantage of that development to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran.
Laura Rozen of Yahoo News reported that U.S. Defense Department officials and former officials, speaking anonymously, said Barak had requested the postponement and that they were "privately concerned" the request "could be one potential warning signal Israel is trying to leave its options open for conducting a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the spring."
The Israelis were not on board with that Obama administration tactic. In fact, Netanyahu seemed more interested in portraying the Obama administration as favoring a soft approach on Iran in an election year.
Instead of reinforcing the effort by Panetta to use the six-month window to bring diplomatic pressure, Defense Minister Barak, speaking on Army Radio on Jan. 18, said the government had "no date for making decisions" on a possible attack on Iran and, adding "The whole thing is very far off."
Another indication that the Ignatius column was not intended to increase pressure on Israel -- but rather to impress Iran -- is that it did not reinforce the message taken by Gen. Dempsey to Israel last month that the United States would not join any war with Iran that Israel had initiated on its own without consulting with Washington.