This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.