The Obama administration really should get some credit for its quiet, effective diplomacy on Iran. Surrounded by a hawkish commentariat and facing a muddled Iranian domestic situation, the Obama team has managed to formulate a policy which brought Iran to the diplomatic table facing an unusually united international front. And by resolutely staying out of Iranian domestic affairs, it managed to engage diplomatically without particularly strengthening or endorsing the Ahmadinejad government. It has also quietly continued its diplomatic outreach to Syria, with the unusual visit to Washington of the deputy Foreign Minister rather firmly squashing the wave of autopsies for America's Syria outreach.
None of this guarantees success on any front, and there's a long way to go. But it's pretty notable that Obama inherited from the Bush hawks a strong, confident, rising Iran which is now backed into a diplomatic corner, regionally on the defensive, and domestically in crisis.
Top administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have also done a good job of pushing back against the feverish attempts to depict an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear sites as not only possible but inevitable. The blizzard of such commentary has been striking indeed, with the presumable intent of normalizing an idea which was once seen as nigh-unthinkable. Heck, sometimes I think that the goal is to get people wondering "hey, didn't Israel already do that?"
From what I've heard from Israeli analysts and officials, they have decided that the lessons of the Lebanon and Gaza wars are really that massive force establishes deterrence and that the predicted harsh Arab reaction (uprisings against friendly regimes, severing of diplomatic relations) never happens. If they genuinely believe that, it makes the odds that they might go for it against Iran considerably higher. So the gentle reminders that a military strike is likely to have little long-term impact on the Iranian nuclear program, would badly damage American interests in the region (such as in Iraq, which are not necessarily the same as Israel's interests) and would not really serve Western interests are so important.
The public nature of the campaign to justify an Israeli strike against Iran could be a useful tactical weapon for American diplomats, the bad cop to help sweeten the pot for the Western good cops. But it can only be a useful tactical weapon if there exists sufficient trust between the Obama administration and the Israeli government that the latter would not go rogue and strike on its own. We hear so much about how the Obama team needs to build trust with the Israelis to get progress on peace, but it runs both ways -- Netanyahu needs to do a lot more to build Obama's confidence that they are on the Iran strategy team.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.