A top American Jewish leader on Sunday criticized the Obama administration for cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one. He said the move sent entirely the wrong message to Iran about America’s commitment to keep all options, including the military option, on the table in the struggle to thwart Tehran’s nuclear drive.

“I’m personally very disturbed by the withdrawal [of one of the US's two aircraft carriers] from the Persian Gulf, the Arab Gulf, because of the message it sends to the Iranians,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the long-time executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, in unusually critical comments. “We have to think about how the Iranians perceive it.”

Hoenlein said he well understood that budgetary pressures may have necessitated the move, but feared that it would be “interpreted by the Iranians as a diminution of our commitment that all options are on the table, which is the only thing that will bring them — if anything will — to a reasonable stance” as regards their nuclear program.

The Pentagon announced 10 days ago that it was cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, with a saving of hundreds of millions of dollars. The decision came as Washington struggles to find a way to avoid sharp automatic spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic programs next month. The US has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for most of the last two years, amid escalating tensions with Iran, as part of a US show of force in the region.

Hoenlein, speaking to The Times of Israel toward the end of a lengthy visit to Israel during which he and his colleagues met with Israel’s key leadership, said he was one of those who considers this year to be the decisive year as regards Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As he put it, “2013 will determine if it’s Iran with a bomb or we bomb Iran… Unless there is a magic formula with increased sanctions or other means which I cannot foresee, this is the year of decision.”

He said he considered North Korea’s recent nuclear test to be “another line crossed — because whatever North Korea does is with Iran and for Iran.”

Asked which it would be — Iran with a bomb, or military action against Iran — Hoenlein answered indirectly: “One of the things people talk about is the cost of action,” he said. “It is indeed very complicated and I don’t dismiss the dangers. But if you calculate the cost of inaction, you’ll find it will be much greater.”

Asked who might carry out any such action, Hoenlein again answered indirectly, noting that President Barack Obama is “further away [from Iran] and has greater fire power,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is closer, and faces greater danger, including “the danger of Iran activating Hezbollah and others.”

“I understand the complexity of it,” noted Hoenlein, a highly experienced Jewish leader who has held his position since 1986. “It’s all very well yelling slogans about bombing Iran. You have to think about the ramifications.”

Malcolm Hoenlein (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Malcolm Hoenlein (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Looking ahead to Obama’s visit to Israel next month, Hoenlein spoke of “an opportunity for two newly reelected leaders, early in their new terms, to recalibrate the relationship… and to reflect the reality, which is not characterized by temporary tensions and passing difficulties but by overwhelming common interest and cooperation day-to-day in so many areas.”

He encouraged the Israeli public to give Obama a positive reception, noting that “the president will be in office for the next four years” and “the relationship with the United States is the most important relationship Israel has.”

Obviously, Israel could and should utilize its freedom of speech, and “people can call for the release of [jailed spy for Israel] Jonathan Pollard.” But “do it respectfully,” he urged. “The American people don’t like to see their president dissed. They don’t want to see disrespect.”

Hoenlein said he considered the US-Israel relationship to have been “so enriched in so many areas in recent years. Unfortunately attention is too often paid to relatively minor difficulties.”

Such strains, he said, “should be dealt with quietly. Publicly there should not be daylight between the United States and Israel,” not least because “the enemies of both countries are increasingly the same, and they will take advantage to the detriment of both countries.”

Apropos differences, Hoenlein noted that Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, “is lauded by the Iranians as anti-Israel” but said it was “a mistake to make his attitude to Israel the central focus… We have reservations about Hagel’s record on matters of importance to the United States.”

Ultimately, Hoenlein stressed, “It’s the president who makes the decisions. This administration is particularly White house-centric. The president will set the policies.”