The internal debate in the Obama administration flared openly Wednesday, April 21, when US deputy defense secretary Michele Flournoy said: "The US has ruled out a military strike against Iran's nuclear program any time soon " – only to be contradicted a few hours later by the Pentagon spokesman, who said the United States had never dropped its military option against Iran's nuclear program. She had had clearly told a news conference in Singapore: "Military force is an option of last resort, it's off the table in the near term." Instead, said Flournoy, the US is hoping that "negotiations and United Nations sanctions will prevent the Middle East nation from developing nuclear weapons."
This exchange gave the impression of indecision and confusion at the top of the Obama administration on its Iran policy. While president Barack Obama, defense secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the joint Chiefs of staff Adm. Mike Mullen, insist that all options are on the table if Iran fails to curb its current nuclear activities, the opposite view came from Deputy Secretary Flournoy, who is regarded as a senior, serious and responsible Pentagon official and too experienced to go out on a limb with a key policy statement without the highest authority.
This reversal was first seen in Tehran as a beckoning finger at America's open door for Iran to return to the negotiating table – Monday and Tuesday, April 19-20, Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced his government is willing to go back to talks with the United States and other powers on a deal for its enriched uranium.
But then, Iranian officialdom decided that the storm of controversy in the Obama administration was a trick to put them to sleep. They claim, mainly on the strength of Russian intelligence sources, that a gradual US military buildup is taking place in Persian Gulf waters that will reach its peak in June and early July. This suspicion dictated the mission set the Revolutionary Guards for its large-scale naval exercise which began Thursday, April 22, of defending Iran from seaborne attack.
But if the Obama administration opts for negotiations, it will find Iran's position on its nuclear program has hardened since the first round of negotiations ended in nothing, and the next round is likely to waste more precious months and end the same way.
Tehran's only object in seeking to discuss an agreed outcome for the nuclear controversy is to buy time and push away Washington's drive for tough sanctions. This the Iranians have now achieved.
Fourney's statement that the United States is counting on UN sanctions to deter Iran likewise plays into Tehran's hands, because it removes the second bludgeon hanging over Iran's heads, that of US penalties outside the world body. This is the only remaining option since most of the informed sources quoted by US media in the past week view the administration's hopes of Russia and China coming around to tough UN sanctions as non-starters.
This wholesale US retreat on Iran leaves Israel as the only country still holding to a military option for putting the brakes on Iran's progress toward a nuclear bomb.
However, Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel's political and military leaders are divided on the wisdom of executing this option and attacking Iran without US support.