"Prevention" rather than "containment" was the watchword of the secret Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on Iran, which President Barack Obama signed in the second week of April, White House circles familiar with its contents have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources.
But by affixing his signature to this directive and endorsing this course, Obama did not put an end to the internal debate n the administration and the military and intelligence communities over its content. They are not clear about the meaning of "prevention." Does it mean preventing Iran developing and acquiring a working nuclear weapon? Or preventing Iran crossing the threshold from the accumulation of the parts and materials for assembling the bomb by holding the tangible threat of American or Israel attack over its head for crossing that threshold?
The object of "prevention" is therefore no more than a punctuation mark before the next stage of the jostling over America's policy for Iran. When circles close to the president are asked how it should work, their reply comes in two parts.
Part One, they say, will be the imposition of tough American-European sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, their affiliates and elements active in the IRGC-supervised nuclear program.
Vice President Joe Biden got it almost right Thursday, April 22, when he said: "I expect new UN sanctions on Iran by late April or early May."
US sanctions first, UN sanctions next
(Biden also dismissed the notion that Israel might attack the Islamic Republic before first allowing sanctions to take their course. A comment relating to a Middle East war this summer is addressed in another article in this issue.)
Sources in the White House say that the vice president should have said US sanctions, since a UN Security Council sanctions resolution is not expected by the most optimistic Washington sources to become feasible before August or September. They believe there is a good chance that by then, Moscow and also Beijing will come aboard. In fact, Tuesday, April 27, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made his most condemnatory and unequivocal comment yet by any Russian about the need to impose penalties on Tehran:
"Iran so far does not show proper understanding or behave responsibly enough," he said. "This is all sad of course. Therefore, if this situation continues, we exclude nothing – and sanctions as well," Medvedev told the Danish Broadcasting Corporation ahead of his official visit to Denmark.
Another encouraging sign for Washington came from the remarks of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself. On Monday, April 26, he attacked the veto prerogative held by the five permanent members of the Security Council as "oppressing and destroying the true nature of mankind and…satanic tools." Washington took this to mean that Iran's leaders already know Beijing will not wield its veto on their behalf to block new sanctions.
What if sanctions don't work – even with Moscow and Beijing aboard?
Not only is China slipping away from Tehran but, according to our Washington and Gulf sources, the most important West European powers have given the nod to new American sanctions and all the Gulf and Arab states, barring Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, have quietly promised to cooperate in their implementation. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a large part of whose economy relies on trade with Iran, has agreed to pull its weight.
Our Middle Eastern sources reveal that Washington took advantage this week of a trip to Beijing this week by the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to relay a message to the Chinese leadership on behalf of all the main Arab rulers: They asked him to convey a clear message that preventing Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is not just a vital Western or Israeli interest, but is shared equally by the Arabs and the Palestinians.
Part One of the Obama administration's strategy of prevention is therefore directed at holding Iran back from the critical stage from which it can develop a nuclear weapon.
Part Two supposedly scripts a What Next? scenario, should this objective fail and Iran's leaders defy sanctions and international opprobrium to order the masters of their nuclear program to cross the threshold and start assembling nuclear bombs and warheads in earnest.
On this eventuality, the president's close advisers break down into three factions:
Group No. 1: A second PPD is needed
National Security Advisor General James Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright lead the group which holds that this situation would call for a follow-up PPD to be signed by the president and determine whether he is prepared to accept a nuclear-armed Iran or abort it by military action. They argue that a choice between the two options was not laid out in the April PPD, which was only a step towards that decision without going all the way.
Group No. 2: Obama has decided to attack
Aside from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, this group is composed almost entirely of influential people outside the administration who are very close to the president, including statesmen, former military personnel, personal friends who influence the president's important political decisions, and some regular golfing companions.
This group says no new Presidential Policy Directive is necessary because Obama has already made up his mind about what to do if Iran develops a nuke, without however confiding in any of his close circle: He will attack. "I have no doubt, that when the moment of reckoning arrives, the president will order an attack on Iran," one of these close associates told DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington this week.
Tehran appears to have come to the same conclusion.
Tuesday, April 27, the influential Washington Web site Politico published a piece by Flynt Leverett & Hillary Mann Leverett, who reputedly run a private American lobby on behalf of Iran, under the title "The Slippery Slope to Strikes on Iran."
This was the farthest Politico was prepared to go to signal that President Obama's policy is heading towards a single destination – a strike on Iran.
Group No. 3: No more time to play around
This group includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and senior NSC Central Region Director Dennis Ross. They share the view that the president has not yet made up his mind how to handle Iran's assembly of a nuclear weapon, but are pressing him to decide right now. They say time is running out for the necessary preparations in the event US military action against Iran's nuclear facilities is decided on. If American and other Western intelligence evaluations are correct, Iran may be in a position to build a nuclear weapon by August or September, should it choose to do so. That time frame is too close for any delay in making preparations.
The pullback of American troops from Iraq on schedule and the start of endgame negotiations for winding down the Afghan war would free up US military resources for any necessary attacks on Iran. But Tehran is fully aware of the pressures on the White House and is adjusting its own tactics and momentum to making sure that by the time Washington's hands are free for action, it will have missed the "prevention" boat.
Certain US military and diplomatic steps are nevertheless in hand, accelerated by Tehran's military plans to beat the US and Israel to the military draw. Both are outlined in the next articles.