TIME Military

Keeping the World’s Eyes on Iran’s Nuclear Menace

IRAN-POLITICS-NUCLEAR-DEMO
CHAVOSH HOMAVANDI / AFP / Getty Images Iranian students formed a human chain to defend their country's nuclear program in 2013 outside the Fordow Uranium Conversion Facility in the northern part of the country.

Distractions shouldn’t derail the goal of denying Tehran atomic arms

They say close only counts with nuclear weapons. That’s something to keep in mind amid the increasingly rancorous debate over the pending atomic accord the U.S. and five other nations have struck with Iran.

Let’s face it: nuclear weapons are the only true weapon of mass destruction. Next to a nuclear blast, biological, chemical and conventional terror attacks are also-rans.

Seeking limits on nuclear weapons should not be confused with important, but less critical, aspects, like the unsavory aspects of one’s negotiating partner.

“It’s pretty evident that the single greatest threat to the region was their getting the nuclear weapon,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. “So we focused on getting rid of the nuclear weapon. Nothing, however, has been diminished in our ability to push back against them on their arms trafficking, their support for terror, their proxies that they send in to other countries, the things that happen in their support for Assad, their messing around with the Iraqi Shia.”

This is where the debate over the wisdom of the proposed Iranian accord has foundered. Instead of focusing on the physics—what is the best way to keep nuclear weapons out of the mullahs’ hands—the increasingly bitter fight in Washington is being derailed by opponents of the deal who cite Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and its oft-stated desire to destroy Israel, as justification for their opposition. That’s akin to arguing that the thug who knifed you in the past shouldn’t be deterred from trying to get a gun.

“A vote for this deal means more money for Iranian terrorism,” warns Robert Bartlett, a former U.S. Army sergeant. He was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2005, apparently by an Iranian explosively-formed penetrator, a sophisticated roadside bomb that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. “What do you think they are going to do when they get more money?” he asks in a video from the newly-formed Veterans Against the Deal.

One can’t help but acknowledge Bartlett’s point. Yet the Iran deal isn’t about doing Iran a favor. It’s about doing what is best for the U.S. and the other five nations on its side.

There are weaknesses in the proposed pact. It allows Iran to remain a nuclear-threshold state, and scraps sanctions that frees funding that could fund mayhem. President Obama has over-played his hand by arguing that those opposed to the deal are pushing for another U.S.-led war in the religious tinderbox that is the greater Middle East.

But that’s all underbrush. The proposal strips nearly all of Iran’s nuclear-development program naked. It would give Washington and the rest of the world far more knowledge about Tehran’s nuclear schemes than it has today, and inspection regimes to keep an eye on them for at least a decade. The pact’s secondary flaws are no reason to derail the primary goal of denying Iran a nuclear weapon.

TIME Innovation

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Military

Drumbeats of Possible War With Iran Grow Louder

Senate Armed Services Hearing on Iran/JCPOA
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and General Martin Dempsey defend the Iran deal at Wednesday’s Senate hearing.

Senate hearing highlights growing skepticism over wisdom of nuclear deal

You could almost see the U.S. and Iran drawing slowly closer to war Wednesday, as dubious lawmakers, including a pair of Republican senators seeking their party’s presidential nomination, grilled top Obama Administration officials over the pending nuclear deal with Tehran.

The reason is pretty simple: there appears to be a growing push among lawmakers, and their constituents, against the recent agreement hammered out by the U.S. and four other nations to restrain Iran’s push toward nuclear weapons (a CNN poll out Tuesday says 52% of Americans oppose the pact).

If the deal falls apart, Administration witnesses warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran would have a fast track toward a nuclear arsenal. If the mullahs try to take advantage of that opening—something expected by U.S. intelligence—all signs suggest the U.S. will go to war to thwart their atomic ambitions.

Language from both the Administration and senators made clear there’s a hair-trigger mentality when it comes to Iran. But how much of that was bluster, designed to win over the other side regarding the deal’s merit, was difficult to plumb. What was clear is how complicated the polarized U.S. debate over the deal has made winning Washington’s approval.

Testifying for the Administration were Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Carter said the Pentagon is “continuing to advance our military capabilities that provide all options…should Iran walk away from its commitments under this deal.” He added, with a bit of martial swagger, that any Iranian aggression would trigger “an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capabilities, married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach.”

Translation: “advance capabilities” means the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 bomber, the only airplane that can carry “sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach”—the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator, specifically designed to burrow into Iranian mountains and destroy nuclear-production facilities.

Two of the most startling questions put to the witnesses by deal doubters came from senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Opposition to the deal makes them look pro-military and pro-Israel (which opposes the deal), as well as anti-Obama—a political hat trick for those seeking to appeal to Republican primary voters.

Lindsey Graham’s question came like a bolt out of the blue. “Could we win a war with Iran?” the South Carolinian asked Carter. “Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?”

“No,” Carter responded. “The United States wins the war.” Neither he nor Graham explained how the U.S. might win in Iran, after it has failed to win in Afghanistan and Iraq since invading those two nations more than a decade ago.

Top Administration Officials Testify To Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing On Military Balance In Mid East
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images“Could we win a war with Iran?” asks Senator Lindsey Graham, alongside Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz of Texas lobbed an electromagnetic-pulse weapon into the middle of the three-hour hearing. “Do you agree that an EMP detonated by Iran in the atmosphere could kill tens of millions of Americans?” he asked Moniz. EMP weapons have become a bugaboo in certain conservative circles over concern that a high-altitude nuclear explosion over the U.S. could fry much of the nation’s electronics. Moniz conceded an EMP could be “a very potent weapon.”

Much of the session was less about nuclear physics than political theater. Republicans spent much of the session detailing Tehran’s “malign” activities, ranging from sponsoring terrorism to threatening to destroy Israel. The Administration’s witnesses acknowledged Iran’s perfidy. But they argued that the deal, which the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia struck with Iran after years of negotiations, is the surest way to delay, if not derail, Iran’s nuclear quest.

TIME Military

U.S. Air Force Primed and Ready to Attack Iran’s Nuclear Sites

B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber
Bennie J. Davis—US Air Force/Getty Images A B-2 readies for flight at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. It's the only plane capable of dropping the Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

But if negotiations collapse, will Obama order it to drop the Big One?

U.S. and Iranian negotiators have been scrambling in Vienna to concoct an accord that will stay Tehran’s nuclear ambitions for at least a decade. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has spent the same amount of time plotting how to derail such an effort if it can’t be done at the negotiating table.

The U.S. has made it clear that it will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon to threaten Israel or its other neighbors in and around the Persian Gulf. If the atomic talks break down—and U.S. intelligence decides Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed state—look for the Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator to get the assignment to try to destroy that capability.

Of course, the Obama Administration and its five negotiating allies—Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia—are engaged as much in psychological gamesmanship as potential pyrotechnics. The U.S. has leaked just enough information about the MOP to let the Iranians know that the Americans believe its use could set back Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon for years.

But the nation’s military leaders have made clear that a single strike with one or (more likely) more Massive Ordnance Penetrators may not halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Obviously anything like that can be reconstituted,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said July 1. “And so a military strike of that kind is a setback, but it doesn’t prevent the reconstitution over time.” It’s a hammer that might have to be used repeatedly if Iran refuses to back down and continues to work on its nuclear program. “The military option isn’t use once and set aside,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added. “It remains in place.”

While no one will say so, Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordow–buried up to 80 meters beneath a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom, at a former missile base controlled by Iran’s unpredictable Revolutionary Guards–is at the top of that target list. Iran has been conducting much of its suspected nuclear-weapons work for years in underground labs and research facilities thought to be able to survive attacks by earlier generations of U.S. military bunker-busters.

“In October 2014, the Air Force successfully completed one weapon drop from the B-2 aircraft on a representative target,” the Pentagon’s top weapons-tester reported earlier this year. “The test, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, demonstrated weapon behavior after planned enhancements were incorporated.” Several additional tests have been carried out in recent months, Pentagon officials say.

Nearly a decade ago, the Pentagon concluded that dropping its one-ton bombs on buried targets was like using a peashooter against an elephant. “Our past test experience has shown that 2,000-pound penetrators carrying 500 pounds of high explosive are relatively ineffective against tunnels, even when skipped directly into the tunnel entrance,” a 2004 report said. “Instead, several thousand pounds of high explosives coupled to the tunnel are needed to blow down blast doors and propagate a lethal air blast throughout a typical tunnel complex.”

In late 2009, the Air Force quietly circulated a solicitation seeking a “Quick Reaction Capability” to “defeat a specific set of Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets.” The weapon, the service said, would “maximize effects against Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs), while minimizing time over target.” The Air Force said it needed the weapon to meet “Urgent Operational Needs requirements”—generally a plea from a battlefield commander who doesn’t think he has the weapons he needs to accomplish a mission assigned to him.

DoDThe Massive Ordnance Penetrator hits its target during a test at White Sands.

“The system will hold at risk those highest priority assets essential to the enemy’s war-fighting ability, which are heavily defended and protected,” the Air Force elaborated in February 2011 budget documents, “providing a critical global strike capability not currently met by inventory conventional weapons.”

The $15 million MOP has six times the heft of existing GBU-28 bunker busters. Glided into its destination by GPS-guided lattice-type fins, its alloy steel hull – some 80% of its weight – is designed to remain intact as it drills through rock or reinforced concrete before setting off its 5,300-pound warhead. Air Force officials say it represents a “bridge” capability between existing bunker busters and nuclear weapons themselves.

The Pentagon doesn’t have an unlimited supply of MOPs: it initially bought 20, for $314 million. The Boeing-built weapon can only be carried by the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber. It’s also extremely shy: there are few photographs of the real thing. But the Air Force has released a pair of photographs of a MOP mockup. It’s a safe bet the mockup has been tweaked from the actual weapon to avoid betraying its precise design and dimensions.

After several upgrades, the Air Force has let it been known that there’s an operational stockpile of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. They’re not far from the B-2 bombers, ready to carry them 7,000 miles to Iran. That much is certain. Whether Obama thinks dropping them is worth the risk isn’t.

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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TIME Military

How the U.S. Would Destroy Iran’s Nuclear Program

DoD The Massive Ordnance Penetrator hits a test target.

'Massive Ordnance Penetrator' would be tapped for mission

The U.S. military has been getting ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to smithereens even longer than Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to negotiate them away. And while Thursday’s “framework” between Tehran and the U.S. and five other nations could lead to a peaceful accord this summer, the Pentagon is ready if it doesn’t.

Iran has been conducting much of its suspected nuclear-weapons work for years in underground labs and research facilities thought to be able to survive attacks by earlier generations of U.S. military bunker-busters.

So the Defense Department has spent just as much time procuring a bigger punch.

“In October 2014, the Air Force successfully completed one weapon drop from the B-2 aircraft on a representative target,” the Pentagon’s top weapons-tester reported in January. “The test, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, demonstrated weapon behavior after planned enhancements were incorporated.”

In late 2009, the Air Force quietly circulated a solicitation seeking a “Quick Reaction Capability” to “defeat a specific set of Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets.” The weapon, the service said, would “maximize effects against Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs), while minimizing time over target.” The Air Force said it needed the weapon to meet “Urgent Operational Needs requirements”—generally a plea from a battlefield commander who doesn’t think he has the weapons he needs to accomplish a mission assigned to him.

“The system will hold at risk those highest priority assets essential to the enemy’s war-fighting ability, which are heavily defended and protected,” the Air Force elaborated in February 2011 budget documents, “providing a critical global strike capability not currently met by inventory conventional weapons.”

The $15 million GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator weighs in at about 30,000 pounds, six times the heft of the existing GBU-28 bunker busters and nearly five tons heavier than the 22,600-pound GBU-43, once known as the “mother of all bombs.” The Pentagon has spent more than $300 million for 20 of GBU-57s.

Guided to its destination by GPS-guided lattice-type fins, the GBU-57’s alloy steel hull—some 80% of its weight—is designed to remain intact as it drills through rock or reinforced concrete before setting off its 5,300-pound warhead. Air Force officials have said it represents a “bridge” capability between existing bunker busters and nuclear weapons themselves.

After several upgrades, the Air Force has let it been known that there’s an operational stockpile of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. They’re not far from the B-2 bombers now ready to carry them 7,000 miles to Iran.

BoeingA mockup of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
TIME Innovation

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Foreign Policy

Exclusive: Netanyahu Canceled Intel Briefing for U.S. Senators on Iran Dangers

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu attends cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
Gali Tibbon—Reuters Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 8, 2015.

Israeli spy chief warned Congress might blow up talks on Iranian nuke program

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to cancel a January briefing for U.S. Senators by his nation’s intelligence service that warned Congress could damage talks aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear program, according to sources familiar with the events.

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had requested the Jan. 19 briefing for six of his colleagues traveling to Israel so that the intelligence agency, Mossad, could warn them that a Senate proposal might inadvertently collapse the talks. After Netanyahu’s office stripped the meeting from the trip schedule, Corker threatened to cut his own Israel trip short in protest.

Netanyahu relented after the personal intervention of Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, and allowed the briefing to go forward, sources say. Attending were Corker, Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Barrasso, Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Joe Donnelly, and Independent Senator Angus King.

At issue was the fate of a Nov. 2013 agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five other international powers. That temporary agreement promised no new economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze of Iran’s nuclear program, new international inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites and the removal of nearly all medium-enriched uranium from Iran’s possession. Both sides have stuck to the interim deal while talks on a long-term deal to constrain the Iranian nuclear program have dragged out.

The controversial but popular bill proposed by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez would have imposed new sanctions on Iran if it didn’t agree by June 30 to a long-term deal. U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that the Kirk-Menendez bill risked collapsing the talks and taking with it the 16-month-old agreement, according to a report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View. Corker wanted the Mossad briefing to bolster the U.S. assessment.

During the Mossad briefing, the agency’s chief, Tamir Pardo, warned that the Kirk-Menendez bill would be like “throwing a grenade” into the U.S.-Iran diplomatic process. After some of the contents of the briefing were first reported by Bloomberg View, Pardo released a statement saying he had used the phrase not to oppose new sanctions, but “as a metaphor” to describe the effect derailing current talks might have.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to say why the Prime Minister acted to prevent the Senators from receiving the briefing from Pardo. Since the Mossad briefing, Corker has rallied support for an alternative measure to replace the Kirk-Menendez proposal, support for which has faded. Corker’s bill, which has broad support and potentially could receive enough votes for a veto-proof majority, would only impose new sanctions if Iran walked away from the Nov. 2013 agreement.

U.S. and Iranian officials are entering a tense phase of negotiations in Switzerland this week as they attempt to reach a political deal to extend and expand the Nov. 2013 agreement for at least 10 years. As the challenges of reaching the longer-term deal have increased, some in the U.S. are trying to ensure the interim agreement that has frozen the Iranian program isn’t undermined in the process.

Some members of the Senate oppose the ongoing talks with Iran. Freshman Republican Senator Tom Cotton last week issued an open letter with 46 other GOP Senators warning the Iranian leadership that Congress could reverse parts of any deal the talks produce. Corker did not sign that letter; his bill provides for partial Congressional approval of a deal.

Cotton has said that rather than negotiate with Iran, the U.S. should adopt a policy of regime change and should arm Israel with bombers and bunker busting bombs with which it could attack Iranian nuclear sites. Authorities in both parties, including Obama’s first Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have worried that an Israeli attack could draw the U.S. into a military confrontation with Iran on unfavorable terms.

Supporters of Kirk-Menendez argue it would increase pressure on Iran to make concessions that would more effectively limit its ability to get a nuclear weapon. Republicans are concerned that the Obama administration is too eager to do a long-term deal with Iran and is making too many concessions in the current talks. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for talks in Geneva Sunday ahead of a self-imposed Mar. 24 deadline for the political framework for a long-term deal. Final terms of a comprehensive agreement would not be worked out before June.

Netanyahu is seeking re-election in a tough vote Tuesday, with his Likud Party trailing his strongest competitor, Zionist Union, by four points in recent polls.

TIME Television

Watch Jon Stewart Compare Republicans’ Welcome of Israel’s Leader to a Sex Act

Benjamin Netanyahu is "the leader they wished they had"

Jon Stewart poked fun at congressional Republicans’ very warm welcome of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, comparing it to a certain lewd sex act.

Netanyahu was speaking against the emerging nuclear deal President Obama is pursuing with Iran. Cheers from the majority-Republican Congress were so loud that they actually caused problems for C-SPAN’s sound equipment.

“It was the State of the Union address Republicans wanted, delivered by the leader they wished they had,” Stewart joked on The Daily Show.

Watch the full clip below:

TIME Military

Concern Over Iran’s Nukes Drowns Out Its Growing Role in Iraq

Tehran helps Baghdad try to retake Tikrit as U.S. watches

Consternation over Iran boiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons “could well threaten the survival of my country.” But over at the Pentagon, the Iran focus wasn’t on Netanyahu but Iraq. That’s because Iran is playing a key role in Baghdad’s fight to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, while the U.S. is confined to the sidelines.

After the U.S. invested $26 billion rebuilding the Iraqi army over the past decade, some Pentagon officials found it disconcerting to see Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias leading the charge into Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Iranians, of course, are relishing the opportunity: Hussein was running Iraq when it launched the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in a stalemate in 1988 with roughly 200,000 killed on each side.

American concern is justified: having Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces storm largely-Sunni Tikrit risks turning the conflict against the Sunni ISIS forces into a sectarian conflict that could balloon into a civil war. “It’s absolutely key that [the Iraqi government] make sure that they have provisions in place to accommodate the Sunnis,” Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “That lack of inclusion is what got us to this point, and I think the only way that we can ensure that we don’t go back there is if we have the right steps taken by the government.” Fewer than 1,000 of the 30,000 fighters battling ISIS for Tikrit are Sunni tribal fighters, according to Iraqi estimates.

The populations of both Iran and Iraq are primarily Shi’ite. Since Saddam’s hanging in 2006, the Sunnis of western Iraq have been treated poorly by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS’s move into the region last year, when it killed more than 1,000 Iraqi Shi’ite troops who had been stationed at a base known, when the Americans were there, as Camp Speicher. Some of the Shi’ites attacking Tikrit are bent on revenge for the slaughter, which could exacerbate intra-Muslim tensions.

Iran, according to reports from the front and Pentagon officials, is backing Iraqi forces with air power, artillery fire and advisers guiding Shi’ite militiamen, who account for perhaps 10,000 of the fighters trying to retake Tikrit. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee later Tuesday. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. — which has conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIS targets since August — has been grounded in the battle to retake Tikrit. The daily U.S. tally of air strikes launched Wednesday ticked off targets around al Asad, Bayji, Mosul, Ramadi and Sinjar. But there were no strikes in or around Tikrit, although U.S. drones are keeping a nervous eye on the fighting (“We have good overhead imagery,” is how Austin put it).

Iran has reportedly dispatched commanders notorious for their killings of Sunnis to the fight. That may lead Tikritis to view those seeking to free their city from ISIS’s grip not as rescuers but as bloody vengeance-seekers.

As the U.S. and Israel work to keep Iran’s nuclear genie bottled up, both Washington and Tehran have said they are not operating together inside Iraq. “We don’t coordinate with them,” Austin, whose command oversees U.S. military forces inside the country, repeated Tuesday.

In other words, they’re allied, but not allies. “The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam … They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”

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