Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to parliamentarians in Tehran February 1, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl
The question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is a policy riddle of the first order for the United States and the world. It also signals a turning point in the nuclear story, requiring fresh thinking about the recent evolution of nuclear danger, about the strategies appropriate for dealing with it and even about the very origin and nature of the entire dilemma posed by nuclear weapons.
In the aftermath of the recent talks in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, it seems likely that for the time being—perhaps for the rest of this election season—there will be no attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by either the United States or Israel. Iran has agreed to meet with a six-power group led by the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the dispute. Attention now shifts to those talks, which will be conducted in the shadow of severe economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council.
But there was another result, no less important. Time apparently was won for diplomacy, but a high price was paid. President Obama unequivocally embraced the use of military force, if diplomacy fails, as the ultimate recourse for preventing Iran from turning its nuclear fuel enrichment program into a nuclear weapons program. The president left no ambiguity. He said that a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable,” and he committed the full prestige of the United States to preventing it. “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment,” he told AIPAC, the right-wing lobby that supports the policies of Israel’s Likud government. “I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” This bridge-burning declaration was fateful. At a stroke, it removed from consideration the nuclear live-and-let-live policies the United States practiced throughout the cold war toward the Soviet Union and other nuclear powers, including China.
In addition, Obama specified war as the means for guaranteeing his objective. He told AIPAC, “As I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” For extra clarity, he said, “I do not bluff.”
What immediately strikes one about the shape of this policy evolution is how sharply the choice of “options” has been narrowed. Obama has repeatedly said that “all options are on the table,” meaning that force may be used. Yet other options, starting with containment, were dropping off the table one after another. By the time Netanyahu departed, Obama seemed to have only two options left: should negotiations fail, will the United States strike Iran now or later? Will it strike once Iran has crossed a certain “red line” or only after it has crossed a slightly different red line?
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How did this shrinkage occur? How has the president allowed himself to be restricted to variations on the theme of who should launch the attack and when? Domestic politics is one reason. The choice of AIPAC as the venue for Obama’s declaration was telling. Before Netanyahu’s state visit, Israeli officials had been using interviews with American journalists to deliver a threatening message. They suggested that if the United States did not attack Iran, Israel would—and soon, even without American concurrence. Israeli officials even suggested a timeline for the attack. The defense minister, Ehud Barak, told the New York Times he feared that in about a year Iran would enter an “immunity zone,” after which an Israeli attack could no longer be successful in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program; therefore the attack must come sooner than that. By implication, the United States would have to attack within the year if it wished to stop Israel from acting unilaterally, with all the adverse regional and global consequences that would follow.