It’s Congress’s fault if there’s a war with Iran, says the White House. Last week administration officials showed their frustration with lawmakers who seek to impose another round of sanctions on the Iranians. "It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?" said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "The American people do not want a march to war."
The idea is that if Congress doesn’t give Obama room for diplomatic flexibility then the only option—and Obama says all options are on the table—is military strikes. The problem is not just that no one believes Obama would actually use force, but that no one is suggesting he do so—or at least no one in Washington.
Going into the second round of negotiations in Geneva later this week, it’s difficult to know what constitutes a U.S. red line anymore. From the perspective of administration officials, as Robert Satloff argues, getting Iran to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and suspend uranium enrichment is a “maximalist” position. Indeed, in its eagerness to get a deal with Tehran, the White House has dragged the U.S. debate so far toward the Iranian position that the most hawkish stance is to impose further sanctions. Talk about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is now outside the bounds of civilized discourse.
It’s bad enough that it’s long been assumed that Israel, rather than the United States, would conduct the strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and would thereby police and protect an area of vital strategic importance to American interests. But now the U.S. debate has become so timorous that what used to constitute a mainstream U.S. position advocated even by Obama—if all else fails, attack Iran—has been farmed out to Israel.
The Iranians, on the other hand, have not hesitated to deploy the specter of their cadre of hardliners in negotiating with the Americans, taking a page right out of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s handbook. Writing in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Michael Doran explained Nasser’s bargaining tactics: To get the best possible terms from the Americans, tell them you need signs of good faith to sideline your domestic “radicals”—i.e., regime allies who will stop pointing their weapons at the United States once Washington pays up.
Thus, in the view of U.S. Iran hands and nuclear proliferation experts, the White House can’t push Iranian president Hassan Rouhani too hard, or it will risk displeasing his “radicals,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The upshot of trying to keep Rouhani at the table, to incentivize him, is to cave to virtually every Iranian demand.
But of course the White House isn’t really negotiating with Iran—it’s voluntarily playing the mark on the wrong end of a long con. It’s not like Wendy Sherman or Valerie Jarrett or any other member of Obama’s negotiating team was ever going to use the hawkish American position to force Iran’s hand. (“Heck, we’d love to acknowledge your God-given right to enrich uranium, but we have these knuckle-draggers back home who want to bomb you back to the stone age so we better forget about that one.”) No, what’s surprising is how easily the administration defanged its domestic opponents in order to partner with Tehran.
What happened to the Iran hawks? In 2007, John McCain famously led a rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” substituting the words “Bomb Iran.” Then came the financial crisis, an Obama victory, and the new White House’s determination to have a grand bargain with Tehran. Anyone who questioned the wisdom of Obama’s enthusiasm to make a deal with a state sponsor of terror that had been killing Americans since 1979 just wanted to get a war-weary United States into another Middle East conflict. By the time of the 2012 elections, Mitt Romney was careful not to let himself be painted as a warmongering Republican.
Even as the administration moved the yardsticks on the American debate in order to get the Islamic Republic to play ball, there’s been no change in Iranian behavior. If U.S. troops were still in Iraq they’d be targeted just as they were six years ago when McCain riffed on the Beach Boys—just as U.S. servicemen and women are still being targeted in Afghanistan.
The Iranians are getting a pass now, and virtually everyone is uncomfortable with the notion of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities, due to the success of the administration’s public messaging campaign. Compare this effort to the fact that Obama has never prepared the American public for the possibility of military action. It wouldn’t be very hard to do so. A few public service announcements reminding the electorate of what Iran has done to Americans over the last 34 years—from taking them hostage in Tehran in ’79 and Beirut throughout the ‘80s to killing and maiming them in Iraq and Afghanistan and targeting them with terror attacks in Washington restaurants and JFK airport in New York—would almost surely do the trick.
Instead, the White House’s messaging campaign has been about ostracizing and shaming American “hardliners.” Blessed are the peacemakers. And anyone who wonders why we should spend American prestige so cheaply by treating with an obscurantist, anti-Semitic, clerical dictatorship that tortures and kills its own people, and has participated in a two-and-a-half-year long campaign of sectarian mass murder in Syria, just wants war with Iran.
Even if we thought it was okay to bomb regime targets—and we don’t—according to a host of administration officials, the best American armed forces can do is set Iran’s program back just a few years. Even if Obama discounted this assessment and told his military that he wanted the option of being able to mow the lawn at will—to show the Iranians that every time they tried to rebuild we destroy their facilities, crash their systems, and bomb IRGC bases and barracks until they got the picture—the Iranian people, according to some Iran experts, would rally around the regime.
Of course in the real world, people don’t rally around an authoritarian regime when its prestige project, its crown jewel, is destroyed. What happens rather is that the men of ambition and cunning smell blood and seize the main chance. Moreover, it’s the sanctions that have ostensibly crippled the Iranian economy—or, the ability of every Iranian to put food on the table—that engender contempt for America. Iranians must be wondering: Are the Americans too stupid to understand that it is not we who are responsible for the nuclear program, but the regime. Or is Obama simply cruel? From the perspective of Iranians, the end result of American sanctions is to give them a choice between starvation and taking to the streets to oppose a regime that crushed them like insects when they rose up in June 2009.
From this perspective, bombing the regime is the humane alternative to sanctions, and the only sane strategic alternative to a nuclear breakout. The White House may believe that it can contain a nuclear Iran. But once Tehran has the bomb it will own the means of destabilizing the Persian Gulf and driving up energy prices at will, a concern that is magnified if Saudi Arabia makes good on its threats to secure a bomb of its own.
But Americans will not own up to their own interests—certainly not the White House and now not even the hawks. Instead we’ve handed U.S. concerns over Gulf security off to the Israelis, like a charwoman tasked with menial, filthy work. Let Bibi scream on the sidelines that Israel is not bound by the administration’s absurd agreement, and threaten implicitly to attack Iran. After all, with the Islamic Republic saying it will wipe the Zionist entity off the map, it’s Israel that is most concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudis and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states have reason to be scared, too. OK, sure, the fact that Obama is forsaking America’s 60-year-old patrimony in the Persian Gulf that ensures the stability of the global oil market and thereby the prosperity and security of America and its allies is a matter of some worry, but this is really about Israel and the Saudis. They’re the ones who are coordinating on Iran attack scenarios. Our military can only set the Iranians back a few years. We just want more sanctions.
It’s time to take back the hawkish position, what used to be the mainstream U.S. foreign policy position, and to own it. If negotiations to make Iran comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and stop enriching uranium come up short, as they almost surely will, Iranian nuclear facilities should be targeted. If all else fails, bomb Iran.