The statements on Iran made by senior US officials in the last ten days convey so much muddle that one US paper could be forgiven for commenting, "If allies and adversaries are presently confused, that would be understandable."
At worst, the muddle may be the external symptom of an administration at sea about how to handle the intractable Iranian nuclear issue. Its heads may have come to terms with a nuclear Iran but don't know how to break the bad news to the American public or its Gulf and Middle East allies, who have been waiting with bated breath for America to do something.
At best, President Barack Obama has not yet decided what to do and is being buffeted here and there by opposing forces.
The week began with the leaked classified memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the White House, reported in the New York Times on Sunday, April 18, in which he pointed out that the U.S. lacks an effective long-term strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear progress.
Gates quickly rushed in to set the record straight, saying his memo had been designed to "contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."
But as the week wore on, the White House showed no orderly or timely decision-making on Iran.
Addressing a Columbia University forum on April 18, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that a United States strike against Iran would go "a long way" toward delaying Tehran's nuclear program.
This comment broke away from what senior administration officials had been saying all along, that a military operation would only hold Iran's nuclear program back by a year or two, at most.
An outpouring of contradictions
Mullen's comment also contradicted what his deputy, General James Cartwright, one of America's top uniformed officers, said this week. In his Senate testimony, Cartwright admitted that if Iran decides to go for nuclear weapons, the U.S. may not be able to permanently stop this from happening unless it is willing to occupy the country.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, then asked the general "whether the military approach was a magic wand." Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged it was not, adding that military action alone was unlikely to be decisive.
The White House then outdid itself in sowing confusion Wednesday, April 21, when U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning Michele Flournoy told reporters in Singapore that the U.S. has ruled out a military strike against Iran's nuclear program "any time soon."
The administration, said Flournoy, is "hoping instead that negotiations and UN sanctions will prevent the Middle East nation from developing nuclear weapons. Military force is an option of last resort and it's off the table in the near term."
Just a few hours later, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell tried to resolve the glaring contradictions by saying, "I don't think that's anything new. It clearly is not our preference to go to war with Iran, to engage militarily with Iran. Nobody wishes to do that, but she also makes it clear it's not off the table."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources say that Michele Flournoy is a steady, reputable, serious official with valuable experience in leading America's covert contacts with such parties as North Korea and Iran on the most delicate issues. It is hard to see her talking out of the top of her head on the Iranian nuclear issue without authority from her department head, i.e. Gates.
So how about a cold war against Iran?
By week's end, the talk about tough sanctions for Iran and Russia and China coming on board had gone up in smoke. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put the uncertainty on record when she said in an interview with the Financial Times last week, "Can I sit here and tell you exactly what will happen, assuming we are able to get the kind of sanctions we are looking for? No… [We are] trying to work toward some better outcome among some really difficult and not very satisfying choices."
So, what is left? Is there an Obama administration policy on Iran? If so, what is it?
On Thursday, April 22, the first voices were heard in Washington suggesting that America's best course would be a policy of containment against Iran, meaning diplomatic isolation backed by the supply of US defense systems to its Persian Gulf allies – some kind of cold war.
These flip-flops are keenly watched by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The first two have drawn the same lesson – Exploit the indecision and confusion in Washington to further boost their nuclear efforts and shorten the distance to a bomb capability.
The third party – Israel – sees itself driven down the only path left open, which is a military operation to stall Iran's nuclear program.