The war of words over Iran’s nuclear program keeps expanding.
It’s now a multi-sided melee pitting Iran against the West and Israel, Israel against the Obama administration, Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, and neo-conservatives like William Kristol against the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The rhetoric is more heated, too. President Obama swears that his administration “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It’s his clearest indication to date that he would, if he deemed it necessary, order military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Robert Gates, Obama’s former defense secretary and a Republican, thinks such an attack would be “catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.” Yet Romney and his hawkish advisers are accusing Obama of coddling the Islamic Republic, which the GOP challenger claims “has never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us.” But neither he nor Obama will draw the “red line” for war that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu demands.
A great deal of this bellicosity is mere campaign theatrics. Netanyahu is shamelessly interfering in U.S. politics, trying to paint Obama as a betrayer of Israel in the eyes of swing-state Jewish and evangelical Christian voters. We know he’s bluffing when he suggests Israel might attack Iran by itself because Meir Dagan, the former Israeli intelligence chief and no dove, called this threat “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
Romney is playing the same cynical game as Netanyahu. In his October 8 foreign policy speech, he didn’t offer a single idea about Iran that differs from what Obama is already doing.
And here’s the deadly serious part: Amid the hullabaloo, Washington has indeed been “tightening the noose” (the White House’s phrase) on the Iranian economy with ever more stringent sanctions. The rial, the Iranian currency, went into freefall over two days in early October — losing 40 percent or more of its value. Even Iran’s smugly self-confident president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been forced to acknowledge that the sanctions are stinging.
Sanctions punish entire nations for the misdeeds of their leaders. In theory, if the general population suffers enough, it will get rid of those leaders and replace them with a more congenial elite.
There’s more to this dubious logic in Iran than there was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where the people were powerless over the fearsome dictatorship. While hardly fully democratic, the Islamic Republic does hold regular elections that have meaning. There are real policy differences between Ahmadinejad, whose two terms in office are almost up, and the more mainstream conservatives who are working to anoint his successor as president next June. Iranian elections are unpredictable. If enough voters blame the hardliners for economic woes, a maverick candidate might emerge.
Ahmadinejad is already signaling a renewed interest in talks about the nuclear program. Obama might calculate that, after the twin presidential contests are over, Washington will be in a good position to get what it wants at the negotiating table. Romney may be thinking the same way.
The problem, as it always has been, is that the technology for generating peaceful nuclear power and building a bomb is the same. The United States and Israel have insisted that Iran can’t have atomic energy capacity, because the same highly enriched uranium could be fashioned into a warhead.
Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, however, Iran has the right to produce nuclear power — and the whole Iranian political spectrum believes in that right. To persuade Tehran to halt enrichment, Washington will have to offer a lot more than the prospect of more coercion.
In 2013, the U.S. president will need to accept this reality or inch down the path to another war in contravention of international law.