The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton admitted before a gathering of university students in Doha this month that the Obama administration did not intend to attack Iran. Her honesty was surely admirable, but also ill-advised when the United States is engaged in a stand-off with Tehran over its nuclear weapons programme. Mrs Clinton has claimed to be a devotee of "smart power", which combines "hard power", a state's ability to coerce, with "soft power", its talent to persuade. Yet with Washington's efforts to engage Iran having failed until now, was it smart for the secretary to take military action against Iran so completely off the table?
It is painfully obvious that the international community has no idea how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. How close the Iranians are to having one is a matter of conjecture. In June of last year, the head of Israel's Mossad, Meir Dagan, told a Knesset committee that Iran would not be able to produce a bomb before 2014. This came only two months after the US national intelligence director, Dennis Blair, presented a document to a senate committee offering a shorter deadline of 2013. Both estimates, however, indicated a longer time frame for an Iranian bomb than is found in much of the public rhetoric today.
The Obama administration is right to hesitate about going to war against Iran; but it is wrong to take the option off the table so explicitly. Doing so may actually make a military confrontation more likely by persuading the Iranian regime that it can pursue uranium enrichment with impunity. If there were debates within the regime over the wisdom of confronting the international community on the nuclear issue, Mrs Clinton may have resolved them by unilaterally throwing up an American white flag.
The Obama administration policy on Iran has been indecisive, but to be fair it inherited this from the Bush years. In December 2007, a national intelligence estimate concluded with "high confidence" that Iran had discontinued its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. While the assessment has since been questioned, politically speaking the report effectively prevented then president George W Bush from mobilising the American public, and his own administration, around a military plan, despite the efforts of then vice president Dick Cheney to push in that direction.
Far from taking a unilateral path, Mr Bush moved with the international consensus in those years. The US, along with the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, worked multilaterally, allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to take the lead. But too many chefs spoiled the broth, and the predictable outcome was stalemate. One week ago the IAEA issued a document expressing its "ongoing concerns" that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.
However, Mrs Clinton's recent statements have exacerbated the Obama administration's predicament in two ways. First, no one believes that the new round of UN sanctions Washington is seeking to impose on Iran will interrupt its nuclear ambitions. In fact when the secretary of state visited Saudi Arabia after Qatar, she heard her Saudi counterpart, Saud al Faysal, say: "Sanctions are a long-term solution, but we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threat. So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution." In diplomatic-speak, this was as close to a rebuke of US policy as one will ever hear.
Mrs Clinton also sent mixed messages by declaring, and not for the first time, that the US would defend its Gulf allies against Iranian aggression. This was similar to a statement she made last July in Thailand, where she said that Washington would provide a "defence umbrella" over the Middle East against Iran. Implicit in this was that the US would deter Tehran's nuclear weapons with American ones, suggesting that the administration might be able to live with an Iranian bomb. She clarified her remarks at the time, but the recent deployments of anti-ballistic missile systems in the Gulf may signal that US thinking on Iran is largely reactive.
That's understandable. A military attack would almost certainly destabilise the broader Middle East, leading to potentially punishing Iranian retaliation in the Gulf and through allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Even if the US and Israel hold a military advantage, a succession of sudden conflagrations in the region could turn into a mess for the administration to manage politically, aside from affecting the global economic order at a moment of western financial vulnerability. There are also doubts as to whether Iranian nuclear facilities would be fully destroyed, since they are dispersed and located deep underground.
However, no action at all would only heighten Israel's desire to try its hand at striking Iran. The Israelis know what an operation might mean for the US, and have until now heeded American warnings against an attack. They would only hit Iran if Washington granted them an explicit or implicit green light to do so, which may not come. Still, we cannot rule out that if Tehran approaches a bomb-making capability and the international community remains paralysed, Israel's government may decide to act. Informed observers affirm that the Israelis have carried out a long-range aerial training exercise over the Gulf of Oman, and have even sent frigates into the Gulf. Israel's public unveiling this week of a large drone capable of reaching the Gulf was also an evident warning to Tehran.
In ruling out a US military attack against Iran, Mrs Clinton not only boosted Iranian confidence, she heightened Israeli insecurities. If you want peace prepare for war, the Latin dictum goes. The Obama administration should take this to heart, because Iran is just not listening. Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut