When President Obama disparaged “loose talk about war” against the theocratic regime in Tehran, he wasn’t minimizing the consequences of atomic weapons in the hands of the mullahs. The danger of terrorists acquiring a bomb would be multiplied by a regional arms race. The international nonproliferation regime would be crippled if not destroyed. The prestige of the United States would suffer fresh damage, and yes, Israel would be gravely threatened.
Yet it is hard to understand why anyone—in Washington, Jerusalem or anywhere else—would argue with his view that sanctions, covert action and diplomatic engagement should be exhausted before anybody resorts to bombs and missiles. Unlike his irresponsible critics on the right, Obama cannot ignore the potential costs of another Mideast war, which could wreck fragile economies both here and abroad, increase the peril to U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as throughout the region, and perhaps escalate into a global conflict of unpredictable scope.
He may have noticed that the same crew of neoconservative pundits and officials who pushed us into invading Iraq and then botched the occupations of that country and Afghanistan are now the most eager proponents of a military confrontation with Iran. These figures dominate the foreign policy team of ultra-hawk Mitt Romney (who, like so many of them, contrived to avoid serving in Vietnam despite his supposed enthusiasm for that misadventure).
No doubt the problem with Iran is real if sometimes exaggerated, as U.N. inspectors who were expelled from that country last year will no doubt tell their superiors in Vienna on Monday. The Tehran regime’s refusal to let the inspectors complete their work is only one among many indicators of suspicion that the regime is expanding its nuclear capacities, which it still claims are strictly for peaceful use.
For Obama, the question is how far the regime’s military industries have proceeded toward building a bomb—and what he can do about it. At the moment, both U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments suggest the regime has not yet decided to build a bomb—but is definitely creating the capacity to do so.
In his recent remarks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a contemporaneous interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, Obama dispelled the complaint so assiduously promoted by his political adversaries—that he will stand by and do nothing while Iran acquires a bomb. That claim fits within their broader narrative of his supposed hostility to Israel, which he carefully and forcefully refuted at the same time.
On Mideast peace, he simply differs from the neoconservatives and the government of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu on how much Israel must be prepared to concede for the sake of peace with the Palestinians. He has adopted no position that is not considered entirely legitimate in Israeli politics—although Netanyahu and his party, often functioning as GOP operatives in U.S. politics, have collaborated with the Republicans in portraying Obama as an enemy of Israel.
As for Iran, the truth (as such serious experts must surely know) is that the Obama administration has pursued a multifaceted international campaign to deprive the regime of its nuclear dreams. Although he sought a constructive relationship with Tehran from the beginning of his administration, the mullahs and their competitors in Persian politics have scarcely encouraged that approach with their defiance of international norms and their brutal repression of their own people. So in tandem with Israel, Obama has evidently authorized a wide-ranging covert effort to forestall and frustrate Iran’s military complex, including interference with its computer systems and undercover sales of defective equipment to its military purchasing agencies.
Now he is demanding time to let sanctions work. In the meantime, he is seeking agreement with Netanyahu on exactly what that would mean—whether the “red line” that Iran must not cross is to build a nuclear weapon, as Obama has just suggested, or to obtain the capability to build one, as Netanyahu insists. That critical distinction may represent the difference between a tense peace and a precarious war.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.
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