By ruling out the possibility of deterring a nuclear Iran, President Obama is needlessly increasing the risks of a ruinous war.
U.S. President Barack Obama, under pressure from Israel and American conservatives to take a harder line on Iran, keeps insisting that "all options are on the table." That's a diplomatic way of saying that the United States is willing to use force to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
To buttress this thinly veiled threat, however, Obama recently took one important option off the table: deterrence. In an interview with the Atlantic, he ruled out "containing" a nuclear Iran in the same way the United States has contained other unfriendly nuclear powers -- by threatening the country with massive retaliation if it attacks us or our allies.
This is a significant -- and needless -- change in U.S. foreign policy. It raises the likelihood of war with Iran, despite Obama's preference for a diplomatic solution. And launching air strikes on Tehran's nuclear facilities would undercut America's ability to play the long game in Iran by abetting a "Persian Spring" that could eventually topple the Islamic Republic.
No sane person wants to see Iran's theocrats get their hands on nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the United States didn't attack the Soviet Union or "Red" China -- far more formidable adversaries -- to keep them from getting the bomb. Later, when India, Pakistan and North Korea barged into the nuclear club, U.S. leaders expressed their displeasure with political and economic sanctions rather than military attacks. And we are safer for it.
So why should Washington now regard Iran's nuclear ambitions as a casus belli? Some say that going nuclear would embolden Iran's rulers to make good on their threats to "wipe Israel off the map." Obama, however, doesn't subscribe to the "crazy mullah" theory -- in the same interview with theAtlantic, he made the case that Iran's leaders "care about the regime's survival" and would make pragmatic decisions to avoid its destruction. Obama's biggest fear is a nuclear arms race breaking out in the world's most volatile region.
In an age of terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism, checking the spread of weapons of mass destruction is a vital U.S. and global interest. But you'd think that, having just extricated the United States from Iraq, this administration would be leery of using nonproliferation as a rationale for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
By taking deterrence off the table, Obama is upping the stakes in this confrontation. He is saying, in effect, that the United States can't live with a nuclear-armed Iran. This may have the tactical effect of turning up the heat on Tehran, but it also paints the United States into a corner. If diplomatic and economic pressures fail to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama will be left with no option but to use force, or see his bluff called and America's credibility shattered.
Some have interpreted Obama's "no-containment" stance as a sop to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that the clock is running out on stopping Iran's nuclear program, pressed Obama last week to define clear "red lines" and deadlines for action against Tehran. What he got instead was Obama's assurances that the United States aims to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons, not to contain it afterwards -- along with admonitions to give tightening economic sanctions more time to work. Meanwhile, American conservatives complained that Obama's real strategy is to forestall an Israeli attack on Iran before the November presidential election.
Meanwhile, the GOP presidential aspirants (except the resolutely non-interventionist Ron Paul) have been whipping up war fever. They accuse Obama of being soft on Iran -- "feckless," writes the nouveau hard-liner Mitt Romney -- and demand that he issue ultimatums to Tehran to surrender or take a pounding. Fortunately, there's zero evidence that Americans are pining for a return to George W. Bush's style of unilateral belligerence. On the contrary, the public gives Obama high marks for resetting U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
Still, Obama is sensitive to GOP claims that he's been insufficiently supportive of Israel. In his speech this month before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he pointed to his success in orchestrating an international campaign to deprive Iran of access to the global financial system and reduce its oil exports. Tehran has vowed it won't bow to economic pressure, even as its currency craters. Nonetheless, the regime last week agreed to reopen talks with the world's major powers aimed at reaching a political settlement.
It's quite possible the mullahs are stalling for time. In any case, the United States shouldn't limit its options for dealing with Tehran. The history of nuclear proliferation shows that the United States has never forcibly stopped another country from going nuclear. U.S. airstrikes could set back Iran's enrichment program, but America can't stand watch over the country in perpetuity. What's more, a U.S. attack could unite the regime and the opposition Green Movement, which also insists on Iran's right to develop civilian nuclear energy.
This might be the worst outcome of all. In the long run, the best bet for defusing the threats posed by a nuclear Iran is a new government in Tehran, constrained by truly representative institutions and the rule of law. A firm police of deterrence, unlike a fleeting military strike, could hasten such positive political change.
March 16, 2012, Foreign Policy