Obama's Iran Bluff

Why Obama's threats should not necessarily be taken at face value.

Much has been made of President Obama’s recent comments on Iran. During an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama said that America is “not taking any option off the table.” This was a reiteration of his State of the Union comment that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” Obama’s explicit acknowledgement of the “military component” as one of the options on the table has been interpreted as a commitment to undertake military action should diplomatic efforts and sanctions not have the desired effects.

Indeed, speculations in the media increasingly seem to revolve around the question of when—and not if—the United States would be willing to resort to military action against Iran should other options prove unsuccessful. James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, for example, commented that Obama’s rhetoric has provided Netanyahu with “rather more explicit . . . commitment to eventually take military action against Iran if Iran persists in pursuing nuclear weapons.” However, Dobbins noted, “Obama has pushed back hard and effectively on the question of timing.” Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, similarly observed that Obama has not yet “close[d] the gap” with Netanyahu on the issue of when military force should be exerted (Israel holds that military action should come before Iran acquires the capability to manufacture a bomb rather than before it actually builds one).

Commentators, however, are reading too much into Obama’s phrase “all options are on the table.” The Cambridge dictionary tells us that saying that something is on the table means that it is “being discussed or considered.” In other words, the military option has merely not been ruled out—a far cry from the implication that it will be exercised if other options are exhausted. Some things can be put on the table and just stay there.

The fact that President Obama has ruled out containment gives further support to those who hold that the military option will remain the only course of action if sanctions and diplomacy fail. However, the decision that these options have failed is a very fungible one. Indeed, as a White House staffer explained, there is room for sanctions and diplomacy to continue until Iran goes beyond making all the elements needed for a bomb—until it decides to assemble them and actually make a weapon. Critics point out that this approach would allow Iran to suddenly lurch forward and assemble a bomb on very short notice, greatly increasing the risks of taking a military action and leading the United States to reconsider containment.

The other widely quoted statement from Goldberg’s interview with Obama: “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff.” Obama expounded, “I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” Several observers have suggested that this statement, like the preceding one, is not so much aimed at Iran as it is at Jewish and Christian evangelical voters (at least those who support the policies of the Netanyahu government).

Others hold that making promises during an election year is like bluffing in poker: it is to be expected and nobody can be seriously offended when the person is caught overstating his hand. Realist John Mearsheimer goes a step further. In his book Why Leaders Lie, Mearsheimer shows that there are quite a few conditions under which heads of state have sound reasons to lie.

As I see it, the president need not be bluffing; he may in his heart of hearts say what he means and mean what he says, and yet you still would not bet your last dollar (or sense of security) on such a statement. The president may—and ought to—change his position when circumstances change. Thus, I do not think he was bluffing when he stated that he would close Guantanamo in the first year of his administration, not hire lobbyists and cut the deficit by half by the end of his first term. But Obama did not deliver on any of these promises, and a similar list could be drafted for all past presidents.

All this has been made mute for now, because according to reports that make a great deal of sense on the face of it, the Obama administration and the Israeli government may strike a deal that works for both sides: Israel would get advanced bunker-busting bombs that  increase the window of opportunity during which it can strike before Iran moves more of its nuclear facilities into a box of immunity, and Israel would get refueling tanker airplanes it badly needs. In turn, Israel may promise not to attack before the elections. Thus, President Obama may not have to worry that Israel will cause a spike in the price of gasoline during the election cycle and the United States would not face another war in the Middle East in 2012. Then if whoever is elected is willing to defang Iran, Israel will be better off. If not, it will be much better equipped to strike on its own.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.

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