Did Dennis Ross, just retired as President Obama’s top adviser on the Middle East, quit over differences with the Obama administration on Iran? When I asked him that question after he spoke last week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), he said no, and he told another questioner that he’d left because of a promise to his family. But in his WINEP talk, Ross was talking tough on Iran, implying that President Obama was seriously considering the possibility of military action to stop Iran from making a nuclear weapon.
Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that there’s no concrete intelligence showing that Iran has an active weapons program. Maybe it does—it’s hard to explain its insistence on maintaining the nuclear research program, in the face of sanctions and international condemnation otherwise. But in any case, Iran is likely several years at least from being able to manufacture a weapon, if indeed it has the know-how. And so far, there’s no sign at all that Iran is diverting even an ounce of its low-enriched uranium into the production of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium.
In an address two weeks ago to the Brookings Institution, however, Secretary of Defense Panetta laid out four reasons why an attack on Iran is a bad idea.
“Part of the problem here is the concern that at best, I think—talking to my friends—the indication is that at best it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years,” he said.
Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.
Thirdly, the United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases. Fourthly—there are economic consequences to that attack—severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States.
And lastly I think that the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.
So we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of that kind of an attack.
Nowhere in Ross’s presentation to WINEP did the former White House adviser mention any negative consequences of a strike on Iran. Even though Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly stressed that war against Iran could have unpredictable and dangerous results, Ross said that Obama is serious about using force to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability.
“[Obama] has not been reluctant to use force when he says that all options remain on the table,” said Ross. “It means that it’s an option he is prepared to exercise.” Later, in a private discussion, Ross told The Nation that even though Panetta, Mullen and others in the administration seem to oppose a strike against Iran, “the president doesn’t take his own words lightly. Has he made a decision yet? No.”