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.”
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.
That the regime in Tehran continued to buy and build was all the evidence needed to show that sanctions, regardless of how they might have affected the ability of ordinary Iranians to put food on the table, had failed. At that stage, there was no need for the White House, avowedly determined to prevent rather contain an Iranian bomb, to engage with Tehran except to deliver in person the final warning that the sanctions regime should have made plain: What we could not prevent through relatively peaceful means we will now destroy with force.
In resisting sanctions, Obama showed that he was loath to prevent construction of the program’s physical infrastructure. The idea that he would now order strikes against that physical infrastructure beggars belief. At this stage, the debate over sanctions is simply part of the administration’s campaign of misdirection that obscures the real issue: The point was never to get a deal, or to get the Iranians to negotiate, but to prevent them from acquiring a bomb.
But now Obama says you can’t really stop them from getting a bomb because they already have the knowledge. So he wants to talk instead about how to convince them not to use that knowledge. Sure, the administration admits, sanctions brought Iran to the table, but more sanctions will drive them away from the table. As Obama said Saturday, the Iranians aren’t going to buckle under the sanctions regime. “The idea that Iran, given everything we know about their history,” said Obama, indulging in some cultural anthropology, “would just continue to get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats, and ultimately just say, okay, we give in—I think does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime.”
In other words, Obama acknowledges that sanctions are not going to make the Iranians abandon their program. Moreover, as Obama now explains, sanctions didn’t even force the Iranians to negotiate. “If the perception internationally was that we were not in good faith trying to resolve the issue diplomatically,” Obama said Saturday, that “would actually begin to fray the edges of the sanctions regime.” That is, sanctions didn’t get Iran to the table. Rather, it was fear that sanctions were about to “fray” that drove the White House to the table—where they promised to relieve sanctions.
In addressing the same Saban audience Sunday morning via live video feed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “steps must be taken to prevent further erosion of the sanctions.” Ultimately, said Netanyahu, “the sanctions remain an essential element of the international effort to compel Iran to dismantle its nuclear military infrastructure.”
Netanyahu’s statement suggests that he is either ignoring what Obama said about sanctions the day before, or has not yet fully comprehended the president’s meaning. As Obama explained, sanctions didn’t bring the Iranians to the table, the sanctions regime was about to fray even before the White House provided the Iranians relief, and tougher sanctions would finally have no effect on the regime’s decision-making. In other words, from the administration’s point of view, sanctions are meaningless—except as part of a political messaging campaign to tie down domestic critics of the interim agreement and traditional U.S. regional partners in an academic debate. The administration’s contention that they can always ratchet sanctions back up if necessary only drives home the fact that Obama sees sanctions as nothing but an empty formalism.
The reality is that the White House weakened the sanctions regime at the very outset, when it failed to make plain that it was not one tool among many in its tool-box, but one of two means with the same goal: to ensure that the regime’s nuclear weapons program remained simply a matter of “knowledge.” Obama’s real message Saturday was that regardless of what you think of the interim agreement, it’s the most that can possibly be expected because he has no intention of striking the regime’s nuclear facilities.