Or, in other words, welcome to 2007, Mr. President. Joe Klein reports that Barack Obama has decided after eighteen months of his ineffective outreach to Iran that the mullahs really do want a nuclear weapon more than they want peace, love, and understanding. Suddenly the military-strike option has returned to the table:
In late 2006, George W. Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and asked if military action against Iran’s nuclear program was feasible. The unanimous answer was no. Air strikes could take out some of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but there was no way to eliminate all of them. Some of the nuclear labs were located in heavily populated areas; others were deep underground. And Iran’s ability to strike back by unconventional means, especially through its Hizballah terrorist network, was formidable. The military option was never officially taken off the table. At least, that’s what U.S. officials always said. But the emphasis was on the implausibility of a military strike. “Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in 2008. It would be “disastrous on a number of levels.”
Gates is sounding more belligerent these days. “I don’t think we’re prepared to even talk about containing a nuclear Iran,” he told Fox News on June 20. “We do not accept the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons.” In fact, Gates was reflecting a new reality in the military and intelligence communities. Diplomacy and economic pressure remain the preferred means to force Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal, but there isn’t much hope that’s going to happen. “Will [sanctions] deter them from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability?” CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News on June 27. “Probably not.” So the military option is very much back on the table.
What has changed? “I started to rethink this last November,” a recently retired U.S. official with extensive knowledge of the issue told me. “We offered the Iranians a really generous deal, which their negotiators accepted,” he went on, referring to the offer to exchange Iran’s 1.2 tons of low-enriched uranium (3.5% pure) for higher-enriched (20%) uranium for medical research and use. “When the leadership shot that down, I began to think, Well, we made the good-faith effort to engage. What do we do now?”
This conundrum didn’t begin with Obama’s election to the Presidency. It began in 2007, when the American intelligence community produced a laughable NIE that asserted that Iran had stopped working towards nuclear weapons in 2003. America’s allies openly scoffed at the conclusion of the NIE and critics called it a nakedly political move intended to force Bush into inaction on Iran. Despite the criticism, it worked — and it allowed Barack Obama, among many others, to claim that Bush was too much of a cowboy and a war monger to be trusted with power. In fact, in the same year, Obama asserted at a presidential debate that he wanted to meet one-on-one with the Iranian leader (although he later denied that he meant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) without preconditions in order to reach a peaceful settlement of the issue.
What this produced was a three-year window for Tehran to pursue its nuclear-weapon program with little risk of interference. Obama continued his open-hand rhetoric while grudgingly pursuing more sanctions, while Iran either ignored Obama, lectured him on the primacy of Islam, or gleefully insulted him on the world stage. Obama’s “smart power” diplomatic team fell for the Peanuts football ploy that Iran has used for the last seven years in exploiting splits in the Western alliance by offering terms and then changing the terms when the West agrees to them.
Now that the Obama administration has wasted more than a year on the same kind of fruitless diplomacy that had already been tried over and over, they have suddenly reached the conclusion that Iran doesn’t want peace; it wants nukes. And if it wants nukes more than it wants peace, they’re likely to want the nukes for a specific target. All of this was blindingly apparent in 2007, but Obama somehow figured that starting over from scratch would work, since he was the change that the world wanted and needed.
A military strike is still a desperation move, for all of the reasons that the Bush team argued. However, the only option worse is an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. We’ve wasted three years getting back to that same realization, but you can bet that the Iranians haven’t wasted a day of it.