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 targets.
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 mission.
“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 Iran.
“Mr. President,” Netanyahu says. “I hope we can count on your full support.”
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 Israelis.”
Within 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.
A few hours later, while Washington sleeps, the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al Arabiya confirms reports of massive explosions in Iran.
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 to comment.
By the time Washington awakens, oil futures are up 20 percent to $110 a barrel.
At 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.
“What the hell do I say,” Obama asks them, “when the press ask me whether I knew about this operation in advance?”
“Don’t answer yet,” Emanuel says. He scribbles a few sentences on a notepad, rips the paper out and hands it to Obama.
“If we 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.”
Obama shakes his head. “Voters don’t care about whether the attack was successful. They care about $5 gasoline.”
By 8 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.”
Having long rehearsed this scenario, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is ready with a sharp, gaffe-free response.
While 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.”
Romney 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.”
By 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.
The 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 on.
J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group, issues a statement expressing “concern” that Israel acted preemptively.
China and 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 Tehran.
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.
But 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 fairly quickly.
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!”
When 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.
By 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.
Obama 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.
“I don’t like physics,” Malia says. “It’s too complicated.”
“I know just how you feel, honey,” Obama says. “I’ve got a few problems like that, too.”
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Blake Hounshell is managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.