Is Dennis Ross pushing Obama to launch a ‘clandestine’ strike on Iran?

The New York Times reports: With Israel openly debating whether to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months, the Obama administration is moving ahead with a range of steps short of war that it hopes will forestall an Israeli attack, while forcing the Iranians to take more seriously negotiations that are all but stalemated.

Already planned are naval exercises and new antimissile systems in the Persian Gulf, and a more forceful clamping down on Iranian oil revenue. The administration is also considering new declarations by President Obama about what might bring about American military action, as well as covert activities that have been previously considered and rejected.

Later this month the United States and more than 25 other nations will hold the largest-ever minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf, in what military officials say is a demonstration of unity and a defensive step to prevent Iran from attempting to block oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz. In fact, the United States and Iran have each announced what amounted to dueling defensive exercises to be conducted this fall, each intended to dissuade the other from attack.

The administration is also racing to complete, in the next several months, a new radar system in Qatar that would combine with radars already in place in Israel and Turkey to form a broad arc of antimissile coverage, according to military officials. The message to Iran would be that even if it developed a nuclear weapon and mounted it atop its growing fleet of missiles, it could be countered by antimissile systems.

The question of how explicit Mr. Obama’s warnings to Iran should be is still a subject of internal debate, closely tied to election-year politics. Some of Mr. Obama’s advisers have argued that Israel needs a stronger public assurance that he is willing to take military action, well before Iran actually acquired a weapon. But other senior officials have argued that Israel is trying to corner Mr. Obama into a military commitment that he does not yet need to make.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to criticize Mr. Obama for being too vague about how far Iran can go. “The international community is not setting Iran a clear red line, and Iran does not see international determination to stop its nuclear project,” he told his cabinet. “Until Iran sees a clear red line and such determination, it will not stop the progress of its nuclear project — and Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”

None of the steps being taken by the Obama administration addresses the most immediate goal of the United States and its allies: Slowing Iran’s nuclear development. So inside the American and Israeli intelligence agencies, there is continuing debate about possible successors to “Olympic Games,” the covert cyberoperation, begun in the Bush administration and accelerated under Mr. Obama, that infected Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and, for a while, sent them spinning out of control. An error in the computer code alerted Iran to the attack in 2010, and since then many of the country’s nuclear sites have been modified to defend against such attacks, according to experts familiar with the effort.

The “Olympic Games” attack on Iran’s centrifuges was chosen over another approach that the Bush administration explored: going after electrical grids feeding the nuclear operations. But Mr. Obama has rejected any attacks that could risk affecting nearby towns or facilities and thus harm ordinary Iranians. Other plans considered in the past, and now reportedly back under consideration, focus on other targets in the nuclear process, from making raw fuel to facilities involved in missile work. One missile plant blew up last year, and Israeli sabotage was suspected, but never proven. American officials say the United States was not involved.

One other proposal circulating in Washington, advocated by some former senior national security officials, is a “clandestine” military strike, akin to the one Israel launched against Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. It took weeks for it to become clear that site had been hit by Israeli jets, and perhaps because the strike was never officially acknowledged by Israel, and because its success was so embarrassing to Syria, there was no retaliation.

But Iran’s is a much higher-profile program. “At best this would buy you a few years,” one administration official said, without acknowledging such a strike was under consideration by the United States or Israel. Even if an explosion at an Iranian facility was accidental, the official said, “the Iranians might well see it as a provocation for an attack of their own.”

“Some former senior national security officials”? Of course the New York Times has to be coy and protect the identity of one of its favorite sources, but can there be any doubt that it’s former NSC Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, Dennis Ross, who is pushing this reckless proposition? And how long would such an attack remain ‘clandestine’? 24 hours? 48 at most. Then what?

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