In his speech to AIPAC, President Obama sought to cool the war fever against Iran, rightly arguing that “loose talk” of military strikes had only served Tehran’s interests by driving up the price of oil. And in his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the president is said to have rejected the Israeli prime minister’s case for military action as well as his proposed conditions for resuming talks with Iran. In a hopeful sign, a renewal of talks between the so-called P5+1 countries and Iran was announced on March 6.
While Obama resisted giving Netanyahu what he most wanted, he did acknowledge “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its own security needs.” And in his speech before AIPAC, Netanyahu kept up the bellicose rhetoric, which has been ceaselessly echoed by GOP candidates, an armada of pundits and many members of Congress from both parties.
Obama argued powerfully that “now is not the time for bluster,” yet his administration has adopted a strategic approach that is moving the United States closer to war. One of its key elements is that the goal of US policy must be to stop Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The question has thus become not whether to accept enrichment but what should be done to prevent it. The administration has taken this position even though Iran has the right to enrich under international law, and even though it is the consensus of all sixteen US intelligence agencies—established in 2007, reconfirmed in 2010 and holding to this day—that Iran has abandoned its earlier nuclear weapons program.
Another questionable proposition is that an Iranian nuclear weapon is a threat to Israel, and therefore Israel and the United States have the right to launch a preventive military strike. This approach embraces the Bush administration’s illegal doctrine of preventive war—the claim that a country can start hostilities not to pre-empt imminent attack but merely to forestall a potential threat. Such talk may only encourage Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent, because it is the same rhetoric that led to the invasion of Iraq.
In addition, imposing what Obama accurately calls “crippling” sanctions will inflict more pain on the Iranian people than on the regime. As they did with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, sanctions may weaken Iranian civil society and shore up the dictatorship.
Managing the US-Israeli relationship is always a difficult challenge for an American president, given the domestic lobby pressures. It is all the more difficult in an election year, with the GOP candidates probing for White House vulnerability on foreign policy and with a right-wing Israeli government whose extreme views are at odds with US goals in the region (note that by constantly beating the war drum over Iran, Netanyahu has succeeded in taking the issue of Palestine almost completely off the table). It must be troubling to the Obama administration that Netanyahu has this much influence over the fate of a second term: an Israeli military strike against Iran would almost certainly draw the United States into a new conflict in the Middle East and send oil prices soaring. As with Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, war on Iran could well have the opposite of its intended effect. As Israel’s former Mossad chief Meir Dagan put it, attacking Iran “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.”
The administration needs a new approach, one involving sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran. The White House should pursue the recently announced renewed talks without onerous conditions or ultimatums. And it should heed the bipartisan urging of Representatives Keith Ellison and Walter Jones, a battery of former top-ranking US intelligence officers and generals, and the Jewish Voice for Peace rabbinical council for a halt in the drift toward war.