Will Barack Obama strike Iran -- or agree to an Israeli strike -- to stop the Iranian nuclear program?
This week, the U.S. president offered his most detailed answer to date, via an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly. The piece is headlined: "As President of the United States, I Don't Bluff." He insists again that he has taken nothing off the table, and talks about his readiness to fight if he must. But the real news in the piece (or so it seems to me) occurs deeper in the body of the text.
"Our argument [to Israel] is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel's security."
Let's decode those words. The president is conveying five ideas here:
- He believes that any military strike against Iran will be merely a temporary solution. He not only states that belief explicitly in the first quoted sentence, but he goes on to imply that a strike will open the way to "constant military intervention." That strongly suggests that the answer to the question at the top of this column is "no."
- The president is claiming that the "only way" -- not the cheapest way, nor the fastest way, but literally the "only" way -- to reach a permanent solution is for Iran to abjure weapons "themselves." Which again suggests that the answer to the question at the top of the column is "no."
- To persuade Iran to abjure weapons, the United States will have to make some kind of deal. "It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have."
- The president believes persuasion of Iran to be feasible because the Iranian leaders are at bottom rational actors: "Without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested."
- But even if the deal does occur, the best case scenario is not very good. Iran will be stopped just short of "breakout" -- i.e., the actual ability to manufacture a weapon. Nor will Iran exactly be stopped. It will more be "paused" -- its breakout capacity pushed "to the right," i.e., into the future.
You may wonder: Doesn't the mention of Libya give the game away? Eight years after Muammar Gaddafi struck a deal with the United States to end his nuclear program, Washington supported an insurrection against the Gaddafi regime. Aren't the Iranians likely to draw the lesson: Deals with the Americans cannot be trusted, and so we will never voluntarily relinquish our bomb program?
From an Israeli point of view, too, the president's words are not overwhelmingly reassuring. Those words make an especially poignant contrast to the op-ed in Thursday's New York Times by one of the Israeli pilots involved with the country's 1981 destruction of Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear facility:
"When we were briefed before the Osirak raid, we were told that a successful mission would delay the Iraqi nuclear program for only three to five years. But history told a different story.
"After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed. This could be the outcome in Iran, too, if military action is followed by tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be repeated."
But that's not the direction in which President Obama's thought is trending. He's trending in a very different direction: Toward negotiations, inducements and a very limited definition of success.
Don't say you weren't warned.
This blog originally appeared in the National Post.