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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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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.

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