The drumbeat for war only helps Iran by driving up oil prices, undermining the effect of sanctions on its economy and stifling domestic opponents of the regime. President Barack Obama conveyed that message clearly and emphatically to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over the weekend. He repeated it to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the two met at the White House on Monday. And he aimed it at his prospective Republican rivals Tuesday when he reminded them of what happened the last time we let the politics of warmongering get ahead of diplomacy.
Mr. Obama is correct in his assessment — the fact that Iran has agreed to reopen negotiations over its nuclear program this week shows its leaders are beginning to feel the effect of punishing diplomatic and economic sanctions. That's a hopeful sign of progress, but it shouldn't cause anyone to doubt America's resolve to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, even if that ultimately means using military force.
With good reason, Israel fears a nuclear-armed Iran would represent an existential threat to the Jewish state. Iran has repeatedly voiced its desire to see Israel "wiped off the map," and its history of supporting and arming terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that openly call for Israel's destruction leaves little doubt ofTehran's unrelenting hostility.
However, an Iranian bomb is not just a threat to Israel. It could destabilize the entire region and lead to a new arms race, and that's not in the best interests of the United States, Europe, Russia, China or anyone else. On this point, there's no daylight between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, nor is there any disagreement that it is unlikely that a nuclear-armed Iran could be contained through a traditional policy of deterrence.
The policy differences between the U.S. and Israel come down to how Iran should be prevented from becoming a nuclear power — and, just as importantly, when.
Mr. Netanyahu says Israel must strike Iran not only before its nuclear infrastructure develops the capability to build a bomb but also before that capability disappears into hardened underground facilities where it would be invulnerable to an Israeli attack — the so-called zone of immunity.
Mr. Obama, however, has suggested the trigger for aU.S. militarystrike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be intelligence showing Iran's leaders had actually made the decision to build a bomb, not merely that Iran had the capability to do so. The president's position implies the U.S. could live with a nuclear-weapons capable Iran so long as it didn't actually use its nuclear materials and technical know-how to construct a weapon. This willingness also no doubt reflects the United States military's superior ability to attack hardened facilities.
These two different "red lines," not the personality differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, are at the root of the recent public friction between the two nations. Mr. Netanyahu wants Mr. Obama to publicly declare the U.S. won't allow Iran to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons, while Mr. Obama has held out for evidence of Tehran's intent.
But would the U.S. actually know if Iran's leaders decide to build a bomb? American intelligence appears to doubt that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given such an order, but Israel and Britain seem to think that if he hasn't done so already, it may be just a matter of time. And Mr. Netanyahu appears convinced that if Mr. Khamenei is indeed holding off, it's only because he's waiting until Iran's nuclear program is so far advanced and so well-dispersed and protected that it can't be destroyed by either a U.S. or an Israeli military strike.
All this is happening in the highly charged atmosphere of a U.S. presidential election year and the continuing political turmoil in the Arab world triggered by the toppling last year of longtime autocratic rulers in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, plus the ongoing rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Talk of an Israeli or U.S. strike against Iran can only further destabilize an already volatile region.
Nor is the situation helped by the Republican presidential candidates who have criticized Mr. Obama for not supporting Israel strongly enough. Yet, aside from Ron Paul, who wouldn't intervene even if the Iranians built a bomb, none of them have offered more than vague, aggressive platitudes regarding what they think U.S. policy toward Iran should be. Would a president Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich attack before or after Iran's leaders decided to build a bomb? So far, none of them has even addressed the question.
The reality is that any modern nation with Iran's level of technical and scientific know-how can build a weapon — Brazil, South Africa, probably even Finland if it wanted to.
The reason they haven't is because they've been persuaded that it isn't in their interest to do so, since the effort would carry far more costs than benefits and it wouldn't make them any safer. That's something Iran's leaders apparently have failed to grasp up to now, but Mr. Obama is right to keep ratcheting up the diplomatic and economic pressure and hope they get the point.