Obama’s Iran Policy: Why Diplomacy Remains the Likely Course

The Israelis may be trying to make military action seem more palatable to the Administration, but diplomacy and sanctions will likely remain Washington's focus well into next year

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Barack Obama speaks during their meeting, March, 5, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

Have some members of the Obama Administration been quaffing a ten-year-old jug of Kool Aid left in a White House basement fridge by Bush Administration officials? That’s certainly an impression conveyed by one unnamed source briefing Foreign Policy magazine’s David Rothkopf  on talks between the Administration and the Israeli government. According to Rothkopf’s source, Washington is now considering plans for a limited U.S.-Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a strike so “surgical” that it could be over in a matter of hours. This ostensible military cakewalk would, according to “one advocate” cited by Rothkopf have a “transformative outcome: saving Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, reanimating the peace process, securing the Gulf, sending an unequivocal message to Russia and China, and assuring American ascendancy in the region for a decade to come.”

Both the language and the thinking in that quote are reminiscent of the giddiest fantasies of the Bush Administration’s Iraq-war zealots. It appears that for some, at least, the failure of the Iraq invasion to transform the Middle East and assure “American ascendancy” simply requires a shock-and-awe do-over.

Rothkopf’s piece on the ostensible emergence of a war-lite option on Iran begins from the premise that President Obama is vulnerable to political attacks from Mitt Romney over his handling of Iran, and might benefit from letting it be known that he’s considering a “surgical strike” on Iran — a scenario ostensibly more believable because it supposedly requires less of a military commitment. “It may be that the easiest way for the Obama team to defuse Romney’s critique on Iran is simply to communicate better what options they are in fact considering,” Rothkopf writes. “It’s not the size of the threatened attack, but the likelihood that it will actually be made, that makes a military threat a useful diplomatic tool. And perhaps a political one, too.”

(MORE: How Many Civilians Would Be Killed in an Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Sites?)

But that assumes Obama faces a major political problem on Iran — an assumption unlikely to be shared by the president’s reelection team at this stage: In most mainstream campaign analyses, being branded “soft on Iran” doesn’t rank particularly prominently among the many reasons why Obama might lose his reelection bid, even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had once hoped to leverage campaign concerns to press Obama towards Israel’s positions on Iran.

Instead, however, Netanyahu had to accept defeat, having isolated himself not only internationally, but also domestically, by his threat to take unilateral military action against Iran before November’s U.S. presidential election. The Israeli leader’s U.N. speech last month effectively took the “October Surprise” option off the table, by making clear that Israel’s own “red line” — Iran having a sufficient stockpile of medium enriched uranium to reprocess into one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade materiel — wouldn’t be reached before next spring or summer. The Israelis have lately dialed down their skepticism of the impact of sanctions on Iran, and on Tuesday Haaretz reported that the Israeli military concurs with the IAEA’s finding that Iran has converted much of its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium into fuel plates for a medical-research reactor that would be of no use in a dash to create weapons-grade materiel.

Netanyahu on Tuesday called new elections, to be held next January or February, making prospects for a military strike on Iran before that even more remote. But President Obama had declined to offer even the consolation prize of a publicly stated U.S. red line that would limit his freedom of maneuver. Still, Netanyahu made clear his government would continue to coordinate its positions and actions with Washington — which is presumably the purpose of the U.S.-Israeli discussions referred to by Rothkopf’s source. In those discussions, the Israelis no doubt would like to cajole the U.S. into articulating a military threat, and to package it in ways more politically palatable in Washington, which appears to be the logic outlined by Rothkopf’s source:

Were it clearer that the primary Iran option being discussed is this very limited surgical strike, then a U.S. threat of force would be that much more credible. And if it were more credible — because it seemed like the kind of risk the president is more willing to undertake — then it would have the added benefit of providing precisely the kind of added leverage that might make diplomacy more successful. In other words, the public contemplation of a more limited, doable mission provides more leverage than the threat of even more robust action that is less likely to happen.

(MORE: Red Lines, Deadlines and End Games: Netanyahu Turns Up Iran Heat on Obama)

While such an argument is clearly being made, it’s harder to detect signs that it’s been accepted. For one thing, no U.S. “red lines” have been stated, without which a military threat can’t be made. And the logic of the argument for a “lite” strike will certainly be questioned by powerful players in Washington. It’s hard to see how or why Iran would respond differently to a brief “surgical” strike than it would to a sustained air campaign, or how such a scenario would avert the negative consequences that have restrained the U.S. from considering military action at this stage. The idea that an unprovoked act of war against Iran could be contained, a cakewalk over within hours that would set the world to rights, will likely be seen as a flight of fancy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have strongly counseled against what they deem a highly risky and unnecessary military action that’s more likely to result in Iran building nuclear weapons than the neutering of that threat.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly signaled that it will take military action if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but there’s a large gap between that implied “red line” and Netanyahu’s one. A comprehensive study published Monday by the respected technical specialists at the Washington-based Institute for Science in International Security (ISIS) notes that should Iran seek to “dash” for the bomb once it had sufficient medium enriched uranium for reprocessing into a single bomb’s worth of highly-enriched materiel — itself an unlikely “dash” point since a single bomb does not a nuclear deterrent make — it would take Iran between two and four months to reprocess into weapons-grade materiel, and “many additional months” to fabricate and miniaturize it into a working missile warhead. Iran therefore remains unlikely to cross U.S. red lines any time next year, which makes the discussion with the Israelis about just how the U.S. would strike should it deem military action necessary a somewhat academic exercise at this stage.

Even the proposition that the Iranians are more likely to surrender on the nuclear issue if facing a threat of war, while popular among Washington hawks, is viewed with skepticism by many Iranian analysts.

But while the Administration and the Israelis continue to discuss their respective red lines and the hypotheticals of what form of military action the U.S. would take if it deemed such action necessary, the focus of the Iran nuclear issue is more likely to shift, after the U.S. election, to a resumption of the stalled negotiations with Iran. Recent reports of Iran having offered a nine-step plan to cap their uranium enrichment at low levels in exchange for the removal of sanctions was dismissed by the U.S. as insufficient, but it signals nonetheless that the Iranians are in the market for a compromise, even if they’re nowhere near capitulating to the full menu of Western demands. Needless to say, also, any discussion over compromises is one in which the Israelis would do whatever they could to have a casting vote.

That diplomatic conversation is likely to continue into next year, framed by November’s U.S. presidential election, Israel’s parliamentary election next January or February, and Iran’s poll to elect a replacement to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad next June. Don’t bet on seeing any military action, lite or heavy, before then — or even after.

MORE: After November: 5 Middle East Headaches That Await the U.S.