In an endless campaign season filled with forgettable speeches and debates, few Americans will recall March 4, 2012, as particularly noteworthy. On that Sunday afternoon, President Obama appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he was expected to give a boilerplate talk about close U.S.-Israeli ties. Instead, Obama announced a new policy that put the United States and Iran on a collision course from which neither side has veered.
Declaring that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be intolerable to Israel and run counter to U.S. security, Obama offered Tehran a stark choice: The regime could abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program and “choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end,” said Obama, who then went further than any U.S. president had in describing what lay at the end of that road. “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And 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.”
In a stroke, Obama took off the table the policy of “containment” and deterrence of a new nuclear power that the United States adopted in response to the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all crossing the nuclear threshold. Either Tehran would have to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program, or the president was all but pledging a preventive war to destroy it. Seemingly disparate headlines of recent weeks—increasingly frenetic shuttle diplomacy to try and restart stalled talks with Iran over its nuclear program; an unusually public spat between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over “red lines”; the deployment of the largest U.S. naval armada to the Persian Gulf in years, to include two aircraft carrier battle groups—are all indications that Iran continues to hurtle down that dead end.
On Friday evening, the Senate passed a resolution, cosponsored by more than three-fourths of the chamber, ruling out a strategy of containment in response to Iran's nuclear program.
Dennis Ross was a former special adviser to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Iran from 2009 to 2011. “Once President Obama made the decision that his objective was preventing Iran from getting a bomb, that put us in a different place diplomatically, because once diplomacy fails you really have no choice but to act,” Ross said on Friday in a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Obama doesn’t make impulsive decisions. There was a debate within the administration over prevention versus containment, and he made a very well-thought-through decision to adopt prevention. And as someone who has watched him in action in the national-security arena, I take his decision very seriously. There’s no question President Obama wants to give diplomacy every chance of working, but there is also no doubt in my mind that if diplomacy fails he is prepared to use force.”
The problem is that the diplomacy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program is failing, despite international isolation and crippling sanctions that have caused the Iranian currency to plummet in value. That failure was evident in a late August report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at an underground facility protected from airborne attack, and had blocked the agency from inspecting a site where previous weapons-development work is suspected.
Last week, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iran's head nuclear negotiator to try and restart stalled talks, and to express serious concern that Iran is accelerating its suspected nuclear weapons program. Ashton is expected to deliver her findings to the P-5 Plus One (the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany) this week at the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent outburst against the Obama administration reveals the sense of urgency Israel feels as Iran continues to bury more centrifuges deeper underground, entering a “zone of immunity” from Israeli airstrikes. “The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there is still time.’ Wait until when? Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red line before Israel.”
After Netanyahu’s comments caused a diplomatic dustup, he held an hour-long, private phone conversation with Obama that Ross characterized as very serious. Both sides narrowed differences, he said, over how long diplomacy should be given to work, whether some sort of ultimatum should be delivered to Iran to bring talks to a head, and at what point Iran’s program crosses a “red line” that might prompt Israel or the United States to strike.
An Iranian nuclear weapon is seen as an existential threat by Israeli leaders, none of whom believe “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran is feasible, said David Makovsky, an Israel expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute. Hard-wired into the Israeli DNA is an ethos of self-reliance, he noted, and an instinctive suspicion of security guarantees given by the international community, or for that matter by the United States.
“The debate in Israel at the elite policy level is not about American capabilities, but about American resolve if diplomacy and sanctions fail,” he said. “It’s no secret that Israel would prefer if the United States was involved in a military strike, not only because it would be more effective, but also because Washington would be critical in maintaining sanctions on Iran even after a strike.”
As Washington and Jerusalem try and synchronize their timeline for action, Israel will be under intense pressure by the Obama administration to stay its hand and give diplomacy time to work. The Obama administration, or for that matter a Mitt Romney administration, will be under intense pressure from Israel to either green light an Israeli strike that would almost certainly draw U.S. forces into the conflict, or else specify as clearly as possible what “red line” would prompt the United States to fulfill Obama’s pledge and launch its own strike.
“Israel and the Obama administration are already deeply involved in a wide-ranging campaign of cyberattacks and sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program,” said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert and director of research at the Washington Institute. Coming up with a final offer that gives Iran what it says it wants in terms of a civilian nuclear program might be useful in clarifying the situation, he said, “because right now we are headed towards war.”