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Obama at Saban: No Military Strike on Iranian Nuke Facilities

Amid the administration’s tangled web of paradoxes and inconsistencies one message rings clear.

1:15 PM, Dec 9, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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The military option against the Iranian nuclear weapons program is still on the table: That’s the message President Obama wanted to leave listeners with Saturday at the annual Saban Forum, hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Sure, Obama explained in his live interview conducted by Democratic fundraiser Haim Saban, his “preference was always to resolve the issue diplomatically.” But when audience member Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence and one of the pilots who conducted the 1981 raid on Osirak, asked about plan B in the event there’s no agreement, Obama flexed his muscles. If, said Obama, he can’t “get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community and the P5-plus-1,” the military option is among the options “we would consider and prepare for.”

Obama in Cairo

Obama in Cairo

This may or may not have reassured the Saban audience and those many others concerned about the interim deal between the P5+1 and Iran outlined in Geneva two weeks ago. But the reality is that the administration’s policy is a tangle of contradictions and paradoxes. And the very incoherence which Obama gave voice to Saturday makes one thing clear: The White House long ago abandoned the idea of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons’ facilities.

The way Obama sees it, a “diplomatic resolution of this situation is, frankly, greater than what we could achieve with the other options that are available to us.” That’s because, according to the president, you can’t get rid of the knowledge that it takes to make a bomb. “The technology of the nuclear cycle, you can get off the Internet,” said Obama. The technology, he elaborated, “is available to any good physics student at pretty much any university around the world. And [the Iranians] have already gone through the cycle to the point where the knowledge, we’re not going to be able to eliminate. But what we can do is eliminate the incentive for them to want to do this.”

In other words, because there’s no way to bomb the knowledge out of existence, the only real option is to convince the Iranians that it’s not in their best interest to make use of the knowledge they already have.

But of course there are very few college students who can afford the costs of procurement and construction of nuclear weapons facilities, as well as, for instance, a ballistic missile program. It should go without saying, but a nuclear weapons program is far more than the technical know-how it takes to make a bomb. Rather, it is the physical material and infrastructure that goes into the manufacture and delivery of nuclear weapons. By targeting that material and infrastructure it is possible not only to set back a nuclear weapons program but also to convince its stewards that it is in their best interest to abandon all hope of ever acquiring the bomb because every time they rebuild their facilities they will again be hit. It is precisely because a nuclear weapons program is largely its physical aspect, and not its “knowledge,” that it can indeed be destroyed. But Obama has no intention of striking the regime’s nuclear weapons’ facilities, which is why he devoted so much attention to the regime’s technical know-how.

One early clue that the administration had already discounted the military option was its opposition to imposing sanctions. The strategic purpose of sanctions was not to destroy the Iranian economy, or even just to force the regime to the negotiating table. Rather, as many Treasury Department officials saw it, the sanctions regime would prevent the Iranians from obtaining the material (procurement, construction, etc.) needed for a nuclear weapons program. By denying the regime access to the international financial system, sanctions would hinder its ability to buy and build what it needed to make a bomb. From this perspective, the sanctions regime is not just an alternative to military strikes but a foreshadowing of them, conveying one clear message: You will never acquire the physical infrastructure for a nuclear weapons program. Should you somehow manage to skirt the sanctions regime, we will take action to destroy those facilities.

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