Now begins President Obama’s real test — not for reelection, but for peace. Coming to an ever-more-dangerous climax in sync with the US political campaign is the long-simmering crisis over Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently reported on possible Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons capability (new centrifuges in an underground enrichment plant). Israel sees Iran behind the July terror attack on Jewish tourists in Bulgaria. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has ramped up its already pounding drumbeat (Where, the Israeli prime minister demands to know, is the American “red line”?). Israeli civil defense measures include the distribution of gas masks. The Syrian crisis highlights Tehran’s influence, as Iran supplies weapons to Bashar Assad through Iraqi airspace. At last month’s meeting of non-aligned nations in Tehran, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon warned that “a war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence.”
While the preference for diplomacy continues to be Obama’s position, the drums at home grow louder, too. Time is said to be on the side of Iran’s nuclear efforts. Obama has been regularly derided for ineffectual talk — “kabuki negotiations,” in columnist Charles Krauthammer’s phrase — while Iran continues toward weaponizing uranium. Another critic decries the Obama strategy of talk and delay as a “mechanism for stalling.” Is it mere fecklessness, or weakness? A justification for Mitt Romney’s charge that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus?
But consider another possibility: What if Obama’s purchase of time, instead of sharpening the dangers of Iran, is actually defusing them?
Obama has two reasons to avoid war with Iran. The first is to spare Israel and the region from unspeakable catastrophe. But the second is equally grave — with implications reaching far into the future. The failure of diplomacy to resolve this crisis would spark a massive new arms race in the Middle East and elsewhere. If diplomacy, that is, fails to prevent Iran from getting its nukes, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others will seek the same weapons. If, alternatively, diplomacy fails to head off war over Iran’s nukes, those same nations will still be motivated to obtain the weapons.
A stable peace is preserved only if diplomacy works, and the entire project of nuclear non-proliferation hangs in the balance. If Obama fails, the world will have turned a disastrous corner back toward war.
Every day that war is postponed is a victory for better outcomes. Every time Obama rejects a Netanyahu invitation to attack, or gives Israeli hawks a reason to desist, moderation can be revived — as much in Tehran as Tel Aviv. The coalition of nations joined in severe determination to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon is strengthened. Force need not be violent.
It is in this spirit that Obama administration officials have consistently pushed back against pressures to attack Iranian facilities. Leon Panetta said in Jerusalem last month that while “we will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” non-military pressures on Iran are not spent. Two weeks ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey, warned against Israel’s “prematurely” attacking Iran. “I don’t want to be accused of trying to influence,” he said, “nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”
Obama’s capacity to stand firmly against successive waves of rattling sabers, with a preference for blurred lines over red lines, suggests a different approach to the exercise of power. Yes, the United States makes its “all options on the table” rhetoric real when it sends a flotilla of warships into the Persian Gulf for “exercises,” or when it urgently expands missile defense in the region. But such military manifestations, instead of contradicting diplomacy, undergird it. A massive program of multilateral sanctions, involving dozens of nations, remains the Obama priority. The alternative is calamity.
Hence Obama’s refusal to let the window for diplomatic resolution close. He is himself the wedge holding it open — alone. What others see as ineffectual temporizing, mixed signals, blurred lines, and contradiction may all amount to wily strategy — a new sort of command, the tempered resolution that already won him the Nobel prize for peace.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.