After months in which the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons has been pushed to the back burner even on foreign-policy issues, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting an uphill battle in his effort to get the Obama administration to pay attention to the threat. But Netanyahu is doing his best to ratchet up pressure on Obama to treat the issue seriously after a period in which it appeared as if the administration had almost entirely forgotten about it. That was the point of his appearance yesterday on CBS’s Face the Nation program, during the course of which he reminded viewers that all he is asking is for the president to do what he has been saying he would do ever since 2008: stop Iran. But with time running out until Iran achieves its nuclear ambition and with the United States showing no sign that it is prepared to act, Netanyahu has very little choice but to speak up and hope for the best.
The problem isn’t getting the United States to validate his concerns with words. President Obama’s rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program has always been largely exemplary. The challenge has always been translating those words into action, and that has always been lacking. While many in the United States have attempted to portray Netanyahu as an alarmist on the issue, his concerns are looking even more valid recently as the United States has effectively decided to punt on Iran, creating a timetable that gives the ayatollahs another year to stall while their nuclear program gets closer to completion. With a “senior administration official” telling journalists last Friday that Washington thinks there may be an opening for more talks with Iran that could lead to the lifting of some sanctions on the regime, a degree of panic on the part of Israelis and others worried about the West giving Tehran a pass appears to be warranted.
It should be remembered that President Obama squandered most of his first term in office on a foolish attempt to “engage” with Iran and on efforts to create an international coalition to support watered-down sanctions on the regime. He has begun his second term determined to repeat this pattern by reviving the P5+1 talks that failed as they did every previous time. They’ve capped this dilatory record by now seizing on the election of Hassan Rowhani, a supposed moderate, as president of Iran, as yet another chance to pry open a mythical window of diplomatic opportunity even as they publicly acknowledge that the ayatollahs have been manufacturing and exploiting these initiatives for years to enable them to run out the clock on their nuclear timetable.
This is especially troubling because the United States seems particularly distracted from Iran in recent months. Secretary of State John Kerry has been obsessed with reviving Middle East peace negotiations that no one but he thinks has a prayer of success. The administration has also been busy blundering its way through crises over the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt (in whose survival Obama appeared to be invested) and standing by helplessly while Iran and its Hezbollah allies appear to be succeeding in keeping the Assad dictatorship in power. These events and the false hope about Iran’s supposedly moderate president have caused the United States to lower its voice and to basically go on vacation when it comes to Iran. The expectation is now that the West will wait until Rowhani is sworn in next month and then allow the Iranians to prevaricate for more months while a new diplomatic process is allowed to waste time and then inevitably fail.
Netanyahu’s efforts aren’t so much to raise awareness about a threat that Obama has already acknowledged as they are to point out that another year of waiting and talking is the moral equivalent of a decision to ultimately tolerate a nuclear Iran. We don’t know exactly how close the Iranians are, but as they move more of their stockpile of enriched uranium into hardened mountainside bunkers and develop alternate plutonium programs, the options for using force—something that even Obama has refused to rule out as a last resort—are becoming less viable. Unless he can produce diplomatic progress soon—something about as likely to happen as a new flowering of democracy and human rights in that Islamist tyranny—the president won’t be able to pretend that he hasn’t already effectively chosen to contain a nuclear Iran rather than prevent it.