Yesterday, during a press conference, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed the following when asked about Israeli military capabilities to undertake unilateral strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities:
DEMPSEY: Militarily, my assessment hasn’t changed. I want to make clear; I’m not privy to their planning. So what I’m telling you is based on what I know of their capabilities, and I may not know about all their capabilities, but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay, but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Q: Is a two- to three-year timeframe of delay, is that still the swag that—
DEMPSEY: I haven’t changed my assessment. (This refers to his earlier assertion that an Israeli strike would “delay the production or the capability of Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon status—probably for a couple of years.”)
Dempsey’s emphasis on the lack of joint U.S.-Israel military planning over attacking Iran is nothing new. In a February interview with Fareed Zakaria, when asked if Israel would fly over Iraqi airspace to strike Iran, Dempsey responded: “Well, I mean, I’m not privy, obviously, to their plans. But that is the shortest distance between two points.” In May, during a public address in Washington, DC, he stated:
Israel and the United States have been closely collaborating on any number of fronts, especially in the area of intel sharing, so that we can come to a common understanding of the threat and of the likely timelines that we might have to confront.
I probably met with [Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz] more than any other of my counterparts–nearly every other month since I’ve been the chairman. That’ll continue because we have common interests in the defense of Israel as well as ensuring that –as you know, we’ve said we’re determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. So I can assure you that we are collaborating with the Israeli military on intel sharing and on our posture. I will say it does not rise to the level of joint military planning, but we’re closely collaborating.
No one in the U.S. government believes that Israel would give the United States advance warning of a unilateral attack against Iran. When the White House, and later Secretary Panetta, demanded such notice, Israel pointedly declined. When asked about an Israeli heads-up, Dempsey simply said, “I don’t know.” Meanwhile, Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, both agree that the Obama administration does not know what Israel will decide to do. In late March, Panetta acknowledged: “If Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us want.”
The near-certainty that Tel Aviv will not warn Washington before attacking Iran—as they never have for other preemptive attacks—along with Dempsey’s repeated warnings raise three important points that are often lost in media reports and Israeli and American public opinion polls. Specifically, there are no joint plans for a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, the most senior U.S. military official is unaware of Israeli military plans, and the United States will not know in advance of a unilateral Israeli operation.
In the past week, U.S. officials have reaffirmed, “there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path,” and, “we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made what’s called a ‘breakout move’ towards acquiring a weapon.” Despite pressure from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration will not attack Iran’s nuclear program any time soon. After years of threats, there may be an Israeli military attack against Iran in the next few months, with the United States on the sidelines—at least initially. Iran’s response to an Israeli attack, however, will almost certainly draw in U.S. military forces nearby, whether they want to or not.