Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Iran Promises: Security or Votes?

A month ago, Jeffrey Goldberg provoked a fair amount of scorn for proclaiming his belief that Barack Obama would “save Israel” from a nuclear Iran. But though Goldberg’s faith in the president’s willingness to use force to stop the Iranian nuclear program goes against everything we’ve learned about Obama in the last three years, Washington appears to be trying to sell the same bill of goods to the Israelis. As Eli Lake reported yesterday in the Daily Beast, “the Obama administration is trying to assure Israel privately that it would strike Iran militarily if Tehran’s nuclear program crosses certain ‘red lines,’ while attempting to dissuade the Israelis from acting unilaterally.”

Given the problems a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran would entail, these assurances might be enough to dissuade the Netanyahu government from acting on its own. But given the contradictory signals the administration has been sending about the use of force on Iran and the differences between the two countries over intelligence on the threat that Lake reports, there is little reason for Jerusalem to be comforted by Obama’s promises. Israel’s leaders would be well advised to see this latest shift on Iran as intended more to convince American voters of the president’s good intentions than to make Tehran step back from the brink.

Obama’s pledges to Israel lack credibility for a number of reasons.

First, is the fact that up until this month, every statement coming out of Washington was intended to pour cold water on the idea of an American attack on Iran even as a last resort. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s statements to this effect just a few weeks ago could only have been interpreted by Iran as a clear indication of this administration’s lack of interest in another Middle East conflict even over as serious a threat as a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Islamist regime.

Second, is Obama’s obvious reluctance to use the one economic weapon at his disposal that might actually have an impact on Iran: an oil embargo. In order to make an embargo work, the United States would have to enact a ban on dealing with any company that did business with Iran’s Central Bank. But Obama has so far refused to do so for fear of raising oil prices in an election year. There is also the fact that this administration, like its predecessor, has refused to enforce the existing weak sanctions on Iran. Since Obama has so far been unable to muster the will to enact crippling sanctions that might convince the ayatollahs to back down, how are we, or the Israelis, to believe he would go even farther and order a strike on Iran?

More persuasive is the thesis that this sudden desire to look tough on Iran is all about the 2012 presidential election. While the last three years have resulted in no action on Iran (unless, that is, you count, empty promises to do something about the problem), the president knows he is vulnerable to charges that his “engagement” policy and subsequent years of feckless diplomacy shows his indifference to the nature of the Iranian threat. He may believe that if he can convince the Israelis not to act in the next year he can get away with more tough talk while diplomacy and weak sanctions continue to fail. Even if, as seems likely, his foreign policy team would rather find a way to live with an Iranian nuke than use force to stop them, that’s not a stand he would prefer to campaign on next fall.

The nightmare scenario for Obama is an Iranian nuclear breakthrough in the next ten months. Having solemnly promised that such an event would never be allowed to happen on his watch, he would be forced to either act or back down and then be judged by the voters. Selling the American people on “containment” of Iranian nukes is something he may think he can get away with in a second term, not a re-election campaign.