Midway through Barack Obama’s first term as president, U.S. officials grew alarmed that Israel might launch a unilateral air strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Iran had snubbed Obama’s outreach after the 2008 election, and rejected an October 2009 international proposal to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country-stirring pessimism about prospects for a future breakthrough.
“Militarily, I thought we needed to prepare for a possible Israeli attack and Iranian retaliation,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his new memoir, Duty. At a January 2010 Oval Office meeting, Gates told Obama “he needed to consider the ramifications of a no-warning Israeli attack,” including whether the U.S. would assist Israel and how it would respond to Iranian retaliation.
Around the same time, senior officials met to discuss ways the U.S. might dissuade Israeli Prime Minister from taking unilateral action. In one such meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a bracing question, two former Obama administration officials tell TIME: Was it possible that, instead of trying to restrain Israel, the U.S. should instead provide what one of those official described as “a tacit green light to the Israelis to take care of the problem for us”? In other words, instead of begging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give diplomacy more time, perhaps it was worth telling him to go proceed with airstrikes.
Clinton did not actually endorse the idea. She only raised the notion “as one option to consider,” according to one former official, who adds that it gained no traction inside the administration. Clinton’s current press secretary, Nick Merrill, did not respond to requests for comment this week on this matter.
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