Several participants voiced concern that the Israeli assault would, perversely, undermine Washington’s ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb. They estimated that Tehran would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after the attack and expel international observers from their facilities—something Iranian leaders might have been looking for an excuse to do. “I think there’s a chance this is a gift to the Iranians,” McLaughlin said, describing the Israeli operation as a possible “get-out-of-the-NPT-free card” for Iran. Without the observers, the U.S. would have a harder time determining what Iran was doing at Fordow, Natanz, and the other sites, and, specifically, at what level it was enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. On top of that, given international anger at Israel over the attack, the broad weave of international sanctions against Iran that Washington has pulled together over the past year would likely fray. “We have to avoid the rapid unraveling of sanctions,” Podesta said.

Sometime near the end of the meeting, West offered a catalog of probabilities for the situation the U.S. now faced. He estimated the chances of Israeli deaths in the Iranian retaliation at 100 percent and the likelihood that Israel would strike back at Iran at 50 percent. The odds that the Arab street would erupt were somewhere around 50 or 60 percent, West said, which meant that the risk of “terrorists killing Americans are pretty gosh-darn high.” Those conclusions led West to ponder the chances that the U.S. would end up using lethal force against Iran. “And after listening to the conversation all morning, I put it at … 50–50, it’s almost a coin toss,” he said. DeLeon’s response: “I think it’s higher.” Pickering: “I agree.”