Two years ago, we wrote in these pages that we were entering with respect to Iran what Winston Churchill called in 1936 a “period of consequences,” in which “the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close.”
And so it finally is. The Obama administration has remained committed to procrastination and half-measures, to soothing and baffling expedients. But even friends of the administration now acknowledge the obvious: After all the diplomatic efforts and attempts at various forms of economic pressure, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapons capability, with a new enrichment facility, thousands more centrifuges spinning, and enough enriched uranium to produce five nuclear weapons.
The last year has also witnessed a foiled Iranian plot to assassinate U.S. diplomats and their families in Azerbaijan, attempts to kill Israeli diplomats in the Republic of Georgia, Thailand, and India, and a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders) at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. As we have shamefully dithered for more than a year, Iran has sent weapons, troops, and money to support its brutal ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. All of this is, of course, in addition to years of Iranian complicity in the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This record of Iranian murder and mayhem is the reality of our failed Iran policy—a policy, to be fair, that began under the Bush administration. President Obama sometimes seems committed to ending the era of procrastination. He said in March that U.S. policy “is not going to be one of containment. . . . My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.” Since that tough talk, however, he and his top advisers have temporized—claiming that Iran is increasingly isolated and on the ropes, insisting that there is time for negotiations and sanctions to work because Iranian leaders have not yet made the decision to weaponize, arguing that “loose talk of war” only serves to strengthen Iran’s hand, and his administration hints that covert activities against Iran can effectively substitute for real action.
But Iran’s nuclear progress marches on. That fact trumps all the administration’s hopes and wishes and theories. Facts are stubborn things, and so is the Iranian nuclear program. No one seriously believes the talks set to resume shortly in Moscow will stop Iranian nuclear progress. Indeed, the talks look increasingly like the farcical diplomatic process pursued by the Bush and Obama administrations with respect to Iran’s friend, North Korea, a “process” that has resulted in a growing nuclear stockpile in that country and a series of unanswered North Korean provocations.
But Iran is much more dangerous than North Korea. And while it may serve President Obama’s short-term political interests to avoid taking action against Tehran this year, it doesn’t serve the nation’s.
President Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The real and credible threat of force is probably the last hope of persuading the Iranian regime to back down. So: Isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program?
Instead of running away from it, administration officials could be putting the military option front and center and ensuring it is seen as viable. And if the administration flinches, Congress could consider passing such an authorization anyway. While any commander in chief has the constitutional authority to take urgent action to protect Americans and their interests, such legislation would give weight to the president’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It would strengthen the president’s hand. It would show Tehran that America’s policy of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is a credible one. Bipartisan support for such an authorization would remove the issue as much as possible from the turmoil of election year politics. And the authorization could also make clear that the United States would come to Israel’s aid in the event that it decides it needs to take action.
We don’t expect the Obama administration to request an Authorization for Use of Military Force. But Congress can act without such a request. By doing so, it would serve the nation’s interest, and, indeed, the administration’s, if the administration means what it says.
At the end of his “period of consequences” remarks in the House of Commons in November 1936, Churchill said:
Two things, I confess, have staggered me, after a long Parliamentary experience, in these Debates. The first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world. Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government’s own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency.
Surely it is time for a concentration of congressional opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency. The Obama administration may be committed to leading from behind, but Congress can choose to lead from the front.