The Magazine

Obama’s Iran Failure

Israel turns up the heat.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Obama administration’s Iran policy rested on three pillars​—​the peace process, engagement, and containment. The first would win the newly elected president credit with the Arab people of the Middle East and empower the Arab states to gather in a robust coalition against Tehran. As for the second, even if engagement failed to bring Iran back into the community of nations, it would prove to Washington’s European allies and, more important, to Russia and China, that the Obama White House had gone the extra mile, which would, in turn, make containment possible.

Photo of Mansour Arbabsiar

Mansour Arbabsiar

All three efforts have now failed, which may explain why recent Israeli news reports suggest Jerusalem is moving toward a decision about a military strike of some sort against Iran’s nuclear program.

After more than half a year of relative quiet as the Arab Spring rolled through the Middle East, the Israeli government has helped shift the regional conversation back to Iran. It’s hardly surprising that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are reportedly in favor of a strike since their historical legacies might rest on how the Iranian issue is resolved. However, the fact that Israel’s president Shimon Peres now calls military action “more and more likely” suggests that, regardless of the eventual decision, Israel has embarked on a public diplomacy campaign intended to seize international attention. 

Jerusalem has been aided in this by the release of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, which not only details the military intent of Tehran’s nuclear program, but also exposes the U.S. intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) as a politicized effort to downplay the threat. If the Obama administration could write off that NIE as someone else’s embarrassment, it was forced to admit its own failure to engage Tehran when it announced indictments on October 11 in the Iranian plot to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

The Israelis saw that Washington was shaken by the plot, and while it is difficult to know how much their contribution to the debate over Iran was planned or just timed fortuitously, the administration has been galvanized. The State Department sent off a flurry of démarches to U.S. allies, which according to Pentagon sources contained the strongest statements they’d ever seen coming from State on the issue of Iran. To shore up its policy of containing Iran with regional clients, Washington now intends to provide the United Arab Emirates with 4,900 additional bunker-buster bombs, presumably intended for Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

Don’t expect any of this to quiet the talk from Jerusalem, though, for the simple reason that deterrence and containment aren’t going to work with Iran. To date, the question of whether it is possible to deter Iran has centered on the rationality of the revolutionary regime. For instance, can a leadership that wishes to usher in the rule of the occulted, twelfth imam be convinced that a nuclear exchange is a bad idea? Iranian nuclear weapons, however, would be aimed not only at Israel, but also at the oil-producing Gulf Arab states, which is to say that while the regime in Tehran is ideological, it seems also to have a long-term strategic vision. Iran’s economy is in shambles. The country exports nothing but energy resources, pistachios, and terror. The population is failing to reproduce, its birth rate having fallen in 20 years to the lowest ever recorded. But the hegemon of the Middle East, the United States, is weak. Therefore, Tehran can save its revolution by extending its imperial sway over the entire Middle East.

A more useful question, then, is whether Washington has the will to deter a nuclear Iran. As it happens, U.S. officials have already admitted, inadvertently, that the model used to deter and contain the Soviet Union is unworkable with Iran. During the Cold War, the several hundred thousand American troops stationed in Germany were conceived of as a trip-wire. But this is not how U.S. policy-makers understand the standoff with Iran. Even as the Obama administration is exiting from Iraq, it contends that the withdrawal will be offset by a beefed up troop presence in Gulf states like Kuwait. But when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns, like many before him, that a strike on Iran “could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” he reveals that Washington sees U.S. troops in the region not as a forward position against Tehran, but effectively as Iranian hostages. The U.S. forces there deter attacks on Tehran, not the other way round.

The notion that the Gulf Cooperation Council forces can be strengthened to balance the Iranians is at odds with the historical rationale for arms sales to Gulf Arab states. The Israelis get American weapons for use against American adversaries; the Arabs are sold U.S. munitions because it pleases them to have expensive new toys and it keeps U.S. production lines rolling. The Saudis may have convinced themselves that they rolled back the Iranians when they dispatched Gulf Cooperation Council forces to Bahrain in March, but all they managed to prove was that Arab armies and their weapons are typically turned against their own populations​—​which is why there was so much resistance recently to a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain. Indeed, with the recent parade of Bahraini dignitaries through Washington, American policymakers cannot help but be dismayed by the fact that a vital U.S. strategic interest​—​the home port of the Fifth Fleet​—​has been entrusted to a gang of incompetents.

Administration officials may well believe they can deter a nuclear Iran​—​without figuring nonstate actors (and possible delivery mechanisms) like Hezbollah into the equation. But the fact that the Obama White House decided not to pursue further sanctions against the Iranians for the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington​—​an operation that might have killed hundreds of Americans​—​signals that the administration has no credible threat of force, not even against a nonnuclear Iran.

Accordingly, Israel may well escalate its public diplomacy campaign​—​and may move beyond diplomacy if it thinks a mortal threat is being ignored. There are options short of a full-scale bombing campaign that Jerusalem might take: an aerial strike on one facility, or even a ground operation designed by a defense minister obsessed with commando raids​—​anything that might make the international community, and especially the United States, take the Iranian threat seriously. Israel may not be able to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in its entirety by itself, but it might settle for less than that in the hopes of inspiring others to finish the job.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers