So what to make of all this? First, it's remarkable that Panetta should make such a mess of things just at the time delicate discussions were going on. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and who was instrumental in helping to craft sanctions legislation, e-mails me: "Panetta didn't go off the reservation. He expressed a view that is widely held in the administration and that his predecessor Bob Gates also publicly expressed. But it is a view that is rapidly being overtaken by events as centrifuges keep spinning, sanctions weaken Iran but don't change the regime's nuclear calculus, and Israelis fear that a nuclear armed Iran may only be truly unacceptable to them."
Another analyst critical of the Obama administration agrees with Dubowitz. Willing to talk only on background, he explains, "Panetta got that far off the reservation because the administration is divided about what to do, the president sends uncertain signals to the rest of his government and, most directly in the case of Panetta, the senior military is decidedly trying to avoid any military conflict with Iran. Many in the military don't believe it is necessary, some believe a decisive blow against the program is now impossible in any case, and perhaps most believe the military simply cannot afford another war given budgets and force readiness levels."
But it's clear that agreeing upon "red lines" simply moves the debate to an ostensibly technical argument as to whether Iran has crossed them. But in reality, the discussion concerns the acceptable level of risk each country is willing to undertake. Dubowitz says, "The debate will be over whether or not the intelligence demonstrates conclusively that these red lines have been crossed. Expect a debate between Israeli and American intelligence communities on these questions."
A critical open question remaining is whether it is too late to enact sanctions and wait for results. Dubowitz contends 2012 will be the decisive year. He says, "This needs to be the year of a rapidly cascading set of oil sanctions designed to hit the regime's wealth and threaten its survival."