Vowing Military Action if Iran Builds a Bomb, Obama Demands Time for Diplomacy

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U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC.

If the tunes that followed each speech on Sunday at the AIPAC policy conference had been chosen along interpretive lines, President Barack Obama might have walked from the podium serenaded by the Rolling Stones’ chorus, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need…”

The message Obama gave to the flagship Israel lobbying organization — on which he’s expected to elaborate when he hosts Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks on Iran’s nuclear program on Monday — was simple: His track record on everything from unprecedented levels of military cooperation with Israel to repeatedly running diplomatic interference for it at the U.N. leaves no grounds for doubt that “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” He vowed to take military action, if that was necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but at the same time noted that Iran, by common U.S.-Israeli assessment, hasn’t yet decided to build an atom bomb. And he made the case that Israel is far better served, right now, by a strategy of pressure and diplomacy that might dissuade Iran from cross that fateful line, than by threatening or launching a war with potentially disastrous consequences without necessarily solving the problem.

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“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Obama warned. “Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in.”

That was an unmistakable rebuke to the cost-free saber-rattling on Iran of Republican Party challengers in recent weeks, and against Israel’s supporters allowing an issue so vital to Israel’s security to  be turned into a partisan political cudgel. It also appears to be a firm response to Netanyahu’s intention, as reported in the Israeli media, to demand a tougher stance from Washington.

President Obama pointed out that his Administration has imposed unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, vowed more, and declared his willingness to use the ultimate sanction — military force — should Iran cross the red line of building a nuclear weapon. Having clarified and declared his willingness to use force, as his critics have demanded, he nonetheless set the red line at a point that won’t necessarily satisfy them — Iran building nuclear weapons, rather than having the means to do so. Still, having signaled his willingness to put U.S. blood and treasure on the line to stop Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state, he pivoted to demand that those serious about Israel’s best interests allow more time and political space for sanctions and a ramped up diplomatic effort to resolve the issue without a potentially disastrous war.

“I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy – backed by pressure – to succeed,” Obama said. “The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists [to seek a diplomatic solution].”

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“Given their history,” Obama continued, “there are of course no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.”

He also reminded his audience that Israeli and U.S. history underscored why both countries have a deep and abiding interest in avoiding war.

“We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power.” But Obama was making the case that those most concerned with Israel’s security were obliged to resolve the Iran nuclear issue without war if that was possible. And bashing the drums of war does little to help that effort.

The relatively tepid applause that some of Obama’s key arguments drew was hardly surprising; this wasn’t exactly red-meat to a crowd fired up by talk of doomsday clocks ticking down to midnight and a new Holocaust on the horizon. But Obama’s assessment aligned him with much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment that has cautioned against launching a military strike on Iran in the near future. After a meeting with Obama following the speech on Sunday, Israel’s President Shimon Peres saluted Obama’s track record of support for Israel, and said “I left with the feeling that he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and he is very serious.”

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Key differences remain, however, particularly since the Israeli red line has been that Iran can’t be allowed to have the capability to build nuclear weapons — which, of course, its current infrastructure gives it, and which it would conceivably maintain even in a certifiably peaceful nuclear program. Those differences determine differing views of diplomacy: Israeli reports, for example, claim that Israel officials have demanded that the U.S. and other Western powers refuse new talks with Iran unless it halts its enrichment of uranium. That may be in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions that Iran has ignored for the past six years, but — or rather because of Iran’s defiance of that demand — it has been recognized in diplomatic efforts until now that it’s not a tenable precondition, even if it remains the goal that Western powers would pursue through a diplomatic process.

Just as Obama has made clear his views that military strikes and threats against Iran are unproductive right now, it’s unlikely that the Israelis will refrain from making clear the pitfalls and perils they see in the sanctions-and-diplomacy strategy that Obama hopes to pursue in the coming months. Monday’s meeting, then, may also be an exercise in damage limitation, both sides recognizing the need to present a united front. Haaretz reports that earlier plans for the two sides to issue a joint statement after the Obama-Netanyahu White House meeting appear to have been shelved.

Still, Obama also gave Netanyahu plenty to cheer about, declaring his support for Israel’s freedom of action and his support for its right and capability to “defend itself, by itself”. That certainly allows Israel to maintain its threat to take military action, despite the skepticism of that option in Washington and in Israel’s security establishment. Obama also largely hewed to Netanyahu’s line on the stalled peace process, making demands of the Palestinians while eschewing all talk of halting settlements and the like, and simply encouraging Israel “to be resolute in the pursuit of peace”. No new initiatives from Washington to revive a comatose peace process are expected in the foreseeable future. But on the Iran front, the focus appears to be on letting sanctions take effect and ramping up diplomatic efforts to seek a peaceful outcome.

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