In today's New York Times, David Sanger reveals that the Bush administration "deflected" an Israeli request last year for bunker-busting bombs, which they reportedly intended to use for a preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. An Israeli request for permission to overfly Iraq (whose airspace is controlled by the United States) was also denied. As partial compensation, the United States agreed to closer intelligence cooperation with Israel and informed Jerusalem that it had intensified a covert action campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear programs.
This episode reveals that once he stopped listening to neoconservatives, President Bush was able to figure out that a preventive strike would be counterproductive. Not only would an Israeli or U.S. attack encourage Iran to retaliate against U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- where we still have our hands full -- it would provide no more than a temporary fix. Just as Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor led Saddam Hussein to redouble his own nuclear efforts, a preventive strike on Iran would have led Tehran to intensify its efforts to acquire a deterrent of its own and to do so in ways that would make it even harder for us to address. According to Sanger, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was especially influential in convincing Bush that an attack would "prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and drive Iran's nuclear effort out of view."
Sanger also reports that the United States has stepped up covert actions against Iran. This is hardly a revelation, but it may help us understand why Iran is meddling in areas where it knows it can cause trouble for the United States and its allies. As Trita Parsi argues in his excellent book Treacherous Alliance, there is a lot more realpolitik in Iranian foreign policy than most Americans recognize, and many of their actions that we rightly oppose (such as their support for Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad) are motivated as much by a desire to force the United States to recognize Iranian interests as by deep ideological convictions. Among other things, Parsi shows that there was little love lost between the Islamic Republic and the PLO in the 1980s, and that Iran began backing more extreme Palestinian groups only after the United States excluded it from the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference and adopted the policy of "dual containment" in the first years of the Clinton administration.
Some of you may believe that Bush's departure and Obama's arrival means that that the use of force is no longer a serious option, and that the United States is going to pursue a diplomatic approach instead. That hopeful conclusion is almost certainly premature, for at least three reasons.
First, there are still influential voices in Washington who maintain that the United States cannot permit Iran to maintain an independent enrichment capability, and who believe that the United States should use force to prevent this in the event that diplomacy does not succeed. See this recent report, cowritten by neoconservative Michael Rubin and endorsed by a task force whose members included Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a number of other prominent individuals. If Ross ends up as the State Department's special envoy on Iran, as has been rumored, this view will be front-and-center in the new administration. (I have been told that Ross's appointment is not a done deal and that there is opposition to it within the transition team, so we don't yet know just how influential that view is likely to be. But it is unlikely to be wholly absent).
Second, as the United States draws down its presence in Iraq, Iran's ability to retaliate in that area of operations will decline. Opponents of the military option will lose one of the obvious counter-arguments to an attack (though there are plenty of others), and opposition within the uniformed military (which has been deeply skeptical of the military option in the past) may decline.
Third, Obama will almost certainly try the diplomatic route first, just as he promised in the campaign. The question is whether the diplomatic strategy that the administration follows has any realistic chance of succeeding. Specifically, will the Obama administration follow the Bush administration's line and insist that Iran abandon its desire to control the full nuclear fuel cycle? In addition, will it take the threat of military force off the table? Threatening Iran with regime change merely increases its desire for a nuclear deterrent, and they are much less likely to abandon that goal if we are continue to point a gun at their heads. Remember that the deal that eventually convinced Muammar al-Qaddafi to abandon his own WMD programs involved an explicit U.S. assurance that we would not try to overthrow his regime. If the United States won't do this for Tehran, and if we demand full cessation of all enrichment activities, we are not going to get an agreement. At that point, hawks will claim that diplomacy has been tried and found wanting and Obama is going to find it harder to resist a more forceful response.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.