Israel bombed Iran? The view from Washington.
By Karim Sadjadpour and Blake Hounshell,
23, 2012 "Washington
September 21, 2012 - For months, Israel has threatened to strike
Iran’s nuclear sites. The United States has urged restraint. If
such an operation were launched, how might Washington react?
President Obama is enjoying a quiet dinner with Michelle, Sasha
and Malia at the White House residence on a Thursday evening in
October when he gets the call.
Two dozen Israeli fighter jets have just entered Jordanian
airspace, apparently en route to Iran, chief of staff Jack Lew
tells him. They will enter Iranian airspace, via Iraq, in
approximately 85 minutes.
“Damn it,” Obama says under his breath. “Bibi told me he was
going to hold off.”
Within 45 minutes, the president’s national security brain trust
has convened in the Situation Room. Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta informs the group that attempts to reach Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have so far failed but that Israeli
military commanders are briefing the Pentagon on Israel’s
Panetta lays out the United States’ options: either persuade
Netanyahu to call it off, or shoot down the planes.
“Shooting down the planes is not an option!” Vice President
Biden explodes. “Tell Bibi the president of the United States
wants to talk to him now!”
Within minutes, Netanyahu’s voice is heard on the speakerphone,
and he immediately preempts any attempts to call off the
“I couldn’t wait any longer, Mr. President,” he says firmly. “I
am responsible for the security of the Jewish nation.”
As Netanyahu explains the operation, Obama eyes the large
electronic map of the Middle East on the Situation Room wall.
The coordinates of the Israeli planes show that they’re nearing
“Mr. President,” Netanyahu says. “I hope we can count on your
Obama’s face masks his scorn. He pauses for several moments
before responding. “You know I respect Israel’s right to defend
itself,” he says, “but I need to do what’s in the interests of
the United States.”
Panetta orders the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James
Mattis, to activate Operation Gulf Shield, putting America’s
military forces throughout the Middle East on their highest
defensive posture, bracing for Iranian retaliation.
Obama surveys the room. “What do we tell the Iranians?” he asks.
“They’re going to assume we’re behind this.”
The battle lines are quickly drawn. Susan Rice — the ambassador
to the United Nations and a close Obama confidante, who is in
the running to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of
state — is the first to chime in, via secure video
teleconference: “We need to be clear that the Israelis acted
without our knowledge. We need to urge Iran to exercise
restraint while we restrain Israel.”
“With respect,” CIA Director David H. Petraeus says, “if we send
them that message, they’ll think they can retaliate without us
responding. The Iranians need to believe that if they respond,
the United States will enter this war — and swiftly and
decisively end it.”
“I agree with David,” Clinton says. “The Iranians need to know
there is no daylight they can exploit between us and the
hours, Twitter is alight with reports of explosions in various
parts of Iran. All seemingly can be traced to one source: the
Iranian opposition group
Mujaheddin-e Khalq. Mainstream media outlets say they cannot
corroborate the story, and Iranian state media is silent.
hours later, while Washington sleeps, the Saudi-owned satellite
channel Al Arabiya confirms reports of massive explosions in
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz alludes to an Israeli
military operation in Iran but, citing national security
restrictions, does not offer details. It appears that
one plane has gone missing, but Israeli officials refuse
time Washington awakens, oil futures are up 20 percent to
$110 a barrel.
6:30 a.m., Obama meets in the Oval Office with senior
campaign adviser David Axelrod and former chief of staff
Rahm Emanuel, who have flown in from Chicago.
Axelrod suggests that the White House’s message should be
that Iran brought this upon itself.
the hell do I say,” Obama asks them, “when the press ask me
whether I knew about this operation in advance?”
answer yet,” Emanuel says. He scribbles a few sentences on a
notepad, rips the paper out and hands it to Obama.
need to,” Emanuel says, “we can leak the news that we
weren’t given a heads up. But we shouldn’t disown it right
away if there’s potential it was a successful operation.”
shakes his head. “Voters don’t care about whether the attack
was successful. They care about $5 gasoline.”
a.m., the White House has issued the terse statement Emanuel
drafted, saying: “The United States is monitoring events in
Iran closely. Israel has a right to defend itself, and
America’s commitment to Israeli security is unwavering.”
long rehearsed this scenario, Republican presidential
candidate Mitt Romney is ready with a sharp, gaffe-free
campaigning in Palm Beach, Fla., that morning, Romney
pledges his “ironclad support” for Israel and attacks
“Obama’s policies of appeasement that left Prime Minister
Netanyahu no choice but to take exceptional measures.”
adviser Dan Senor rips into the president on CNN: “Our
strongest ally in the world, Israel, is facing an
existential threat, and Obama is still leading from behind.”
Another Romney adviser, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton,
echoes this theme on Fox News. “Instead of doing his job as
commander in chief, Barack Obama outsourced our national
security to Israel,” he says. “The American public owes a
debt of gratitude to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we should
be prepared to finish the job.”
late morning, more details of the attack trickle out in the
media. The strike reportedly caused extensive damage to
Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz, Arak and Isfahan, as
well as to the country’s radar and command-and-control
centers. But it’s unclear just how much damage has been
done, and there’s no word on casualties.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) begins
circulating a draft resolution on Capitol Hill expressing
the Senate’s “unconditional support” for Israel. By noon, 99
senators — with Rand Paul the lone dissenter — have signed
a liberal Jewish advocacy group, issues a statement expressing
“concern” that Israel acted preemptively.
Russia condemn Israel, urging restraint and calling for an
emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Saudi Arabia,
Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — which in
WikiLeaked State Department cables from 2010 appeared to
support a military attack on Iran’s facilities — condemn
Israel’s action but stop short of expressing solidarity with
Unable to reach Obama again, Netanyahu tells Biden that
it has been a “clean, successful operation,” with
minimal Iranian casualties. “Frankly, we should have
done this a long time ago,” he says.
the first batch of satellite photos suggests that the Fordow
nuclear plant outside Qom, buried under 300 feet of
specially designed concrete, may have survived the raid.
Unless Israel or the United States mounts a follow-up
attack, Iran may be able to continue enriching uranium
Iranian state television shows footage of the casualties,
including women and children (though an opposition Web site
later reveals that these images were actually of recent
earthquake victims in northwestern Iran). Iranian Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vows revenge. “The blood of
our women and children is on the hands of the Great Satan
and its puppet master!” he says. “The Zionist entity has
written its death certificate!”
the stock market closes, oil prices are up nearly 40
percent, the largest 24-hour increase in history. CNN
interviews Americans at gas stations in swing states such as
Florida and Ohio; most blame Iran, not Israel or Obama, for
the price jumps.
Friday evening, leaks have emerged from within the U.S.
government and military saying that the United States had no
prior knowledge of Israel’s actions.
manages to break away from his national security team to
join his family for a quick dinner. Sasha and Malia are
talking about their schoolwork.
don’t like physics,” Malia says. “It’s too complicated.”
know just how you feel, honey,” Obama says. “I’ve got a few
problems like that, too.”
is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. Blake Hounshell is
managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
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