At the end of President Obama’s historic interview with the Arabic news network al-Arabiya—the first he has granted as President of the United States—Hisham Melham, the satellite channel’s Washington Bureau Chief, asked how far an Obama administration would be willing to go to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The president answered the question as one would expect of him, by speaking about his admiration for Persian civilization, about how far he would be willing to go to reach out the Iranian people, about how committed he was to pursuing direct diplomacy with the Iranian regime. “As I said during my inauguration speech,” Obama stated coolly, “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
The Bush administration, by refusing to talk to the Iranian regime while the centrifuges were spinning, allowed Iran almost a decade of uninterrupted enrichment activity.
And with that, the interview ended. Not a hint of there being a “military option” in dealing with Iran. Not even an apathetic “all options are on the table,” George W. Bush’s familiar mantra.
There is, of course, a simple reason for the omission. When it comes to Iran, there is no “military option.” Even Bush understood this. Indeed, there is no longer much that the United States—or any country, for that matter—can do to keep Iran from continuing its nuclear program. The days of waiting for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations have long since past, precisely because the Bush administration, by refusing to talk to the Iranian regime while the centrifuges were spinning, allowed Iran almost a decade of uninterrupted enrichment activity. As far as most Iranians are concerned, there is no going back.
The principle error in the Bush team’s approach to Iran was that it could never decide whether its goal should be to stop Iran from enriching uranium, or to keep it from developing nuclear weapons. Those are vastly different objectives, requiring vastly different approaches.
Now that the first option—halting Iran’s uranium enrichment—is no longer viable, President Obama can focus his efforts on the far more urgent matter of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear tinkering does not evolve into a full-fledged weapons program. To achieve this objective, Obama must return to a campaign promise he made back in 2007, when he was still a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, and publicly, loudly, unconditionally declare that regime change in Iran—the focus of three decades of American foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic—is no longer “on the table.”
It may be difficult for most Americans to fathom, considering the confident blustering of Iran’s leaders, but the regime is in a state of utter panic over its national security. When I was in Iran a couple of years ago, people were staring at the sky, waiting for American or Israeli bombs (in Iran, they are one and the same) to drop on them at any moment. Although the regime’s paranoia has somewhat subsided with the election of Obama, Iran still has reason to feel threatened. After all, this is a country that is literally encircled by American forces— the US maintains a military presence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran’s as-yet nonexistent nukes may pose an existential threat to Israel, but Israeli’s very real nuclear missiles are currently pointed directly at Tehran. Every action that Iran takes—from its support of Hizbullah and Hamas to its pursuit of nuclear technology—must be viewed through the prism of the country’s all-encompassing sense of threat. If Iran has learned anything from its fellow axis of evil members, it is this: the country without nuclear weapons (Iraq) was destroyed and forcefully occupied; the country with nuclear weapons (North Korea) is being bribed into giving them up.
Iran may not actually want nuclear weapons. They are expensive to maintain, impossible to conceal, and, considering the uproar their possession of such weapons would cause, far too politically risky. But there is no doubt that Iran would at least like the option of weaponizing its nuclear program in a hurry should the need arise. At the very least, it would like to give the impression that it can deter any threat to its national security with the utmost force. Only by convincing Iran that it has nothing to fear, either from Israel or from the US, or from the growing chorus of Arab states lined up against it, can we convince it to reign in its nuclear ambitions.
Obviously, it is too early to know precisely what Obama’s diplomatic approach toward Iran will entail. On her first day as ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice trotted out the old Bush talking point that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment before the US would engage in talks about its nuclear program. Maybe she missed the memo. On the very same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that the Obama team is engaged in a broad overview of the Bush Administration’s policy toward Iran. Presumably, this includes an examination of the preconditions regarding the halting of its enrichment program. As Obama himself said in his interview with al-Arabiya, “judge me not by my words but by my actions.” I for one think his actions will match his rhetoric.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Best, is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside and Senior Fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the international bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.