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Taking Iran Seriously

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By JAMIE M. FLY
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A funny thing happened last week in Iowa. Foreign policy—mostly the question of how to deal with the threat posed by a nuclear Iran—emerged front and center in the Republican presidential race.

Photo of Naval aircraft carrier

On January 1, Rick Santorum told David Gregory on Meet the Press that he would support airstrikes to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Then Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both raised Iran in their post-caucus remarks, promising, if elected, to use all options at their disposal to prevent a nuclear Iran.

This focus on Iran was in part a reaction to its saber-rattling in the Strait of Hormuz and in part a reaction to Ron Paul’s argument that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons is an understandable response to U.S. aggression and that sanctions against Iran are “an act of war.”

The results of the caucuses suggest that Paul is losing the argument. Roughly 78 percent of caucusgoers rejected his views and voted for candidates who are more hawkish than President Obama on Iran, who are concerned about cuts to the defense budget, and who want us to win rather than give up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So it’s safe to say that voters in November will have a clear alternative to the president’s dangerous drift on Iran. As they should have. For despite Obama’s statement during the 2008 campaign that “we have no time to waste” to prevent a nuclear Iran, wasting time is exactly what his administration has done.

Continued Iranian aggression, including the killing of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and even a plot to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil, has gone unanswered. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has vacated Iraq and is reluctant to intervene to oust Iran’s closest ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

These failures, combined with the rift in Washington’s relations with the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the administration’s blatant stonewalling of sanctions passed by Congress, have ensured that Iran has little to worry about in its steady march toward a nuclear weapons capability. The most serious leverage, potential military action, has been dismissed and discounted by a succession of Obama administration officials.

The administration apparently believes, as former White House official Dennis Ross recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, that we “have the time and space needed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through nonmilitary means.” This assumption is likely based on U.S. intelligence community assessments of Iran, assessments that have repeatedly turned out to underestimate Tehran’s nuclear progress. But it is more fundamentally based on President Obama’s obvious preference to avoid dealing with Iran as a serious threat during an election year.

The president should pause long enough in his reelection campaign to ponder the speech given by Netanyahu in early December at the gravesite of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu discussed the difficult and controversial decision that Ben-Gurion had to make regarding Israel’s declaration of statehood. The parallels to the choice confronting American and Israeli leaders today regarding Iran are striking:

Both domestically and abroad, within the Jewish community in Israel and across the world, tremendous pressures were exerted on Ben-Gurion not to take this step. Everyone told him: This is not the time; not now. .  .  . Ben-Gurion did not ignore these warnings. He well understood that there would be a heavy cost to this decision, but he believed that the cost would be even heavier if he did not make the decision. We are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right time. He considered and debated for some time, but at the end of the day, he was ready to make difficult decisions for the future of our people.

The best hope for deterring Iran is not to equivocate but to be clear, not to run away from discussing the military option but to put it front and center. The serious Republican candidates for the presidency seem to understand this. It is dangerous that President Obama does not.

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