Inside Story Americas
Is Israel fuelling fear not facts over Iran?
We ask if the US message to Israel is 'do not attack Iran' or 'do not attack Iran now'.
Last Modified: 22 Feb 2012 09:02

"At most, [the benefit of a strike on Iran] would be a delay in Iran's nuclear programme. The question which American policy makers and Western policy makers and Middle Eastern policy makers haven't been proactive on is what policies they would have in place to take advantage of that delay."

- Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute

As UN nuclear inspectors make a critical visit to Tehran, the White House says there is still time for diplomacy to work over Iran's disputed nuclear programme, but no options are off the table.

Tom Donilon, the US president's national security adviser, has concluded three days of talks with Israeli leaders, in which, it has been reported, he delivered a clear message: "Don't attack Iran."

His visit came at the same time that US General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said a military strike on Iran's disputed nuclear programme would be premature and destabilising.

The UN inspectors are due to meet Iranian scientists and to visit facilities to gage claims that Iran is making nuclear weapons. Iran has consistently denied that accusation.

"It is very important ... to think about the morning after. What can really be achieved if there is any sort of strike on Iran's nuclear facilities? If anything, this will motivate the Iranian government to definitely develop a nuclear weapon. It will give it the kind of legitimacy and rationale it needs and doesn't have today - that a nuclear weapon is definitely needed as some form of deterrence."

- Geneive Abdo, an Iran analyst

Tougher sanctions have been imposed on Tehran and it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world's seaborne oil travels. And after the European Union threatened to stop importing crude oil from Iran in July, Iran has now stopped selling to British and French companies.

But there may also be a diplomatic opportunity. Last week, Iran indicated in a letter, that it is willing to restart talks about its nuclear status.

So what is the US policy regarding Iran's disputed nuclear programme?

How close are US and Israeli views? How concerned is the US that Israel is going to attack Iran?

Is imprecisely chosen language and media hype fuelling fears rather than facts?

And is the US perspective 'don't attack Iran' or 'don't attack Iran now'?

Joining Inside Story Americas to discuss this are: Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House and US state department official who co-authors the blog The Race for Iran; Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute who served as an adviser on Iranian issues during the Bush presidency; and Geneive Abdo, an Iran analyst at The Century Foundation.

"Since the ... US withdrew from Iraq ... Iraq's skies are defenceless .... That means ... there may be this narrow window when there is a straight shot over Jordan and Iraq toward Iran .... Operationally, the Israelis may feel they have this window of opportunity ... to go into Iran ....

"Right now, I think the Israelis have assessed that President Obama and the US administration is paralysed politically to do anything, to say anything to really affect Israeli decision-making to attack. That window closes in November. Now, even though the Israelis have, I think, tried to disregard, not listen to, maybe even sometimes embarrass President Obama, they are concerned he could be re-elected. And, if he's re-elected, they don't know what a renewed term for President Obama would mean for them and whether they would have the same opportunity.

"So, I don't think this is really driven by any existential threat coming out of Iran. It is driven by this window of opportunity militarily for the Israelis and this political vulnerability for the United States."

Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House and state department official
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