from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The President Undermines His Iran Policy

December 08, 2011

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the extension of the payroll tax cut and the Republican obstruction of Richard Cordray's nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in the briefing room of the White House in Washington December 8, 2011. (Courtesy REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)


At his news conference today the president was asked about the Iranian nuclear program.

Here is a key part of his reply (after omitting his usual, inaccurate, and apparently inescapable dig at the Bush Administration):

No options off the table means I’m considering all options....Now, Iran understands that they have a choice:  They can break that isolation by acting responsibly and foreswearing the development of nuclear weapons, which would still allow them to pursue peaceful nuclear power, like every other country that’s a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or they can continue to operate in a fashion that isolates them from the entire world.  And if they are pursuing nuclear weapons, then I have said very clearly, that is contrary to the national security interests of the United States; it’s contrary to the national security interests of our allies, including Israel; and we are going to work with the world community to prevent that.

What’s wrong with that statement? American promises to keep "all options on the table" have no credibility in the Middle East. The president used that phrase--all options on the table--not once, about Iran, but twice in his press conference. He said "I will not take any options off the table when it comes to getting Richard Cordray in as director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board." Inasmuch as a military strike on the U.S. Senate to get Mr. Cordray confirmed is unlikely, applying the phrase about "all options" to that situation is likely to make the ayatollahs feel less, not more, threatened. The phrase has come to mean "I am really mad about this" and nothing more.

Mr. Obama might have said very clearly "I will not permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon." Instead what he said, as noted, was "we are going to work with the world community to prevent that." The Iranian regime knows as well as we do that there is no "world community" and knows as well as we do that the real question is the president’s willingness to use force, as a very last resort, to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. If he seeks the approval of the "world community" to do so, he won’t get it--something else the ayatollahs know. So the actual impact of his statement is to weaken our position, not strengthen it, just as Secretary of Defense Panetta weakened it last week when he groaned at the Brookings Institution about the horrible things that might happen if there were a strike on Iran.

Mr. Obama’s chosen path of sanctions might work (though I am a skeptic)--if the sanctions are tough enough AND if Iran believes that, in the end, he is absolutely resolute in his determination to prevent them from getting a bomb and will use force to stop them. So when he and his defense secretary make statements that undermine Iran’s fear of such a strike, they undermine the chances of success of their own policy.