Obama vs. the Hawks on Iran

How Obama's opaque Iran policy is lending feul to the fire of bellicose GOP contenders and their Israeli allies.

The mainstream media is again reporting the conventional wisdom: A nuclear Iran would pose a direct threat to U.S. security interests and an “existential threat” to Israel, and anyone who opposes bombing Iran is an “appeaser” and “anti-Israeli.”

This dominant narrative is also reinforcecd by the cast of a popular reality-television show, The Republican Presidential Debate. Not an episode goes by without Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum bashing President Obama as an enabler of a new Holocaust with Ahmadinejad as Hitler.

But Obama has allowed his own policy opaqueness to enable the let’s-bomb-Iran crowd, who echo the lines written by the Likud government, to fill the void and dominate the discourse.

Obama has asserted that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” and insisted that “no option is off the table” in stopping Iran's quest for the bomb. But while Obama is continuing to publicly pursue a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the crisis, his approval of legislation imposing tough economic sanctions against Iran may be seen as the first step toward a military confrontation.

At the same time, the Obama administration has refrained from explaining how it would respond to an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last year that he would warn the Israelis of the global economic consequences of a military strike on Iran. But before he was vice president in 2006, Joe Biden said that Israel “can determine for itself—it's a sovereign nation—what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.”

As one tries to decipher these conflicting signals sent by the Obama administration, it is difficult to deconstruct its Iran policy. Will the administration give Israel a green light to attack Iran, or has it vetoed such a move? Is the White House hoping to create an environment conducive to U.S. military action, or is it applying diplomatic brinkmanship that could bring about a peaceful resolution?

This kind of policy opaqueness and injecting a lot of “noise” into the process can provide a strategic advantage over foreign adversaries. From that perspective, what is perceived as a sense of confusion in the Obama administration may be a sort of psychological warfare against Iran (“We cannot control Israel”) and diplomatic pressure on China and Russia (“Support sanctions or Israel will strike”).

In any case, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Washington to advertise its intentions to the Iranians in advance. Obama remains silent on what exactly he will do if Tehran fails to terminate its nuclear program, inducing the Iranians to make a deal.

But Obama’s lack of transparency has a major downside. The White House believes that it is writing the script for this diplomatic production. But some of the main actors may not be willing to read the lines assigned to them and could try to write a different ending.

Neither the current Israeli government nor the Republican presidential candidate will support a deal with Iran that would be acceptable to the regime there. So much for the proposal by Turkey and Brazil that Iran send uranium abroad for enrichment or a step-by-step process advanced by Russia that calls for confidence-building and transparency measures by Tehran. Any sign that Obama was even considering these or similar ideas as a basis for negotiations with Iran would ignite a storm of protest by Benjamin Netanyahu and his Republican pals.

But Obama could take advantage of the debate in Israel over the cost-effectiveness of a military confrontation with Iran: leading security figures there argue a war with Iran could lead to many casualties, devastate the economy and only postpone the development of an Iranian bomb by a year or two, a view that is shared by many respected U.S. officials and analysts.

Obama needs to accentuate these arguments and stress his commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis, one that would secure both U.S. and Israeli interests. Such an approach would probably anger Netanyahu and Romney but would secure support from those Israelis and Americans who are opposed to a military strike against Iran.

At a time when many Americans, including Republican-primary voters, have begun to question the wisdom of never-ending and costly military intervention in the Middle East, it is doubtful that a Republican will win votes by committing to another war there. If he shares these voters’ concerns, Obama must demonstrate it—in both words and action.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Image: Barack Obama