No-Go

02.26.12

Why Obama Won't Back a Strike on Iran

Netanyahu has made it clear he won’t let Tehran get the bomb, but a war would be disastrous for Obama in the run-up to elections.

Unless something blows up beforehand, President Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on March 5. And when the two men sit down together, the first issue on the table will be war.

In recent months, tensions over the pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear program have spiked. So far, Washington has confronted Iran most directly, leading a global campaign to impose harsh economic sanctions on some of the most vital parts of the country’s economy, including its oil sector. Yet if the United States has played the deliberate statesman, Israel has been the state ready to strafe, amplifying threats to attack Iran’s nuclear sites before Tehran’s program progresses too far toward weaponization.

“They are after the same ultimate goal, to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capacity,” says Stuart Eizenstat, the former ambassador to the European Union who led the sanctions effort against Iran during the Clinton administration. “But at the end of the day the U.S. is probably more willing to make a compromise. Not so for Israel, which sees a need to avoid a second Holocaust, a real fear that most people in Washington do not fully understand.”

In other words, Obama and Netanyahu may be marching in the same parade, but they are not in lockstep. Netanyahu has repeatedly made his country’s interests clear. When he addressed the U.S. Congress last May he said, “Time is running out, the hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.” He went on, “I ask you to continue to send an unequivocal message that America will never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.” In recent weeks, his defense minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli President Shimon Peres have furthered that request.

But Obama cannot send any such unequivocal message to Iran. He will not be able to support—either overtly or covertly—Israeli military strikes. Assuming Netanyahu doesn’t come around to Obama’s position that military action is avoidable, the two will part ways with the strategic gap widening between them. “Over the past year, perhaps even over the last four years, the evidence has been growing that U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical,” says Stephen Walt, a political scientist at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “And if you’re in the Obama administration, you do not want a war right now.”

Indeed, even the most well-conceived and precisely executed military campaign would have unintended consequences. For example, should Israeli fighter jets attack Iranian nuclear sites, even in the best-case scenario the ensuing struggle in the Gulf would result in several weeks of higher prices at the pump. Obama is already fighting a political battle for reelection with gasoline prices at all-time highs—he is not likely to gamble on upping those by a dollar or two more this summer.

There are strategic risks, too, associated with a strike that have not been accounted for. As former Israeli official Ehud Eiran wrote on Friday, “Israeli policymakers are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself.” With too much left to chance, and the fact that military action would likely only set back Iran’s nuclear program by a few years, the possible costs outweigh the potential benefit.

Anyone who tells you where the American public stands on striking Iran is blowing hot air. Polls this month from CNN and The Hill reached exactly opposite conclusions. Obama has built much of his foreign policy record on ending wars in the Middle East. To unleash a new one just months before a national election would, despite the hawkish harangues from his Republican opponents, stink all the way to the ballot boxes on the 6th of November.

The uncertainty that accompanies military action is all the more unpalatable to the Obama administration right now because, for the moment at least, things are beginning to look up for the White House. The economy, although still sputtering, is at least starting to make strides toward a sustainable recovery. Republicans are spending the vast majority of their time tarring and feathering each other. Accordingly, White House spokesman Jay Carney said explicitly last week, “There is time and space to attempt to resolve [the Iran conflict] peacefully.”

But this is where Obama’s real conundrum begins, not ends. To be sure, sanctions have taken their toll on Iran. They are chipping away at the country’s economy and wearing down the everyday lives of the Iranian people but “so far they are not blaming the regime,” says Hooman Majd, the respected author who spent most of last year living in Tehran. “Actually, they seem to be blaming the West. The sanctions are, in a way, providing the leadership cover for their own economic mismanagement.” So there is an argument that even as the White House’s top tactic is hitting its target, it is delivering counterproductive results.

And even if Obama signals clearly to Netanyahu that Washington will not support a strike, it may do little to deter Jerusalem from acting on its own. “The Israeli window of opportunity closes in late spring or early summer,” mainly because of military capacities, according to Eizenstat. Consider the steady stream of top American officials making pilgrimages to Israel: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey—the U.S. military’s top official—visited last month; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon just returned; and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has plans to go soon. In case there’s any question what message these powerful men are conveying, upon his return Dempsey appeared on CNN saying, “It would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us.”

“The evidence has been growing that U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical. And if you’re in the Obama administration, you do not want a war right now.”

Tehran, meanwhile, is standing defiant. “Iranians feel Israel is seriously considering an attack, and they feel they can absorb it,” says Majd. “The Iranian leadership also feels an Israeli attack would give them an excuse to kick out IAEA inspectors and move forward with the nuclear program.” Whether the West wants to hear it, he says, “There is a sense among the leadership that they are actually in a very strong position.”

The irony here is that, of all the issues the White House wants to address, Iran is on top. “It is quite remarkable the extent to which the Palestinian issue has receded on the agenda,” says Eizenstat. Obama came into office pledging to pursue a peace agreement—remember his boldness in the 2009 speech he gave in Cairo: “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said. Since then, little—if any—progress has been made on a peace agreement. Instead, the vast majority of the White House’s Middle East bandwidth has been occupied not by peace, but by Iranian nukes.

Despite the divide between America and Israel today, there are three things Obama can say that would let both him and Netanyahu rest easy on Monday after they’ve parted ways. First, should Iran someday build a nuclear weapon, Israel already has a deterrent: an estimated 80 nuclear warheads of its own. Second, Jerusalem enjoys Washington’s unconditional support—if it doesn’t consider its own deterrent up to snuff, American firepower knows no rival, and certainly no Iranian one. And third, General Dempsey was right when he asserted that Iran is a rational actor. Even if it wants a nuclear weapon, it does not want to invite its own annihilation by using one. While interests may diverge these days, the U.S.-Israel alliance is incredibly strong—and there is comfort in that.