WASHINGTON — There are two positions one can take regarding the Iranian nuclear program: (a) it doesn't matter, we can deter them, or (b) it does matter, we must stop them.
In my view, the first position — that we can contain Iran as we did the Soviet Union — is totally wrong, a product of wishful thinking and misread history. But at least it's internally coherent.
What is incoherent is President Obama's position. He declares the Iranian program intolerable — "I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon" — yet stands by as Iran rapidly approaches nuclearization.
A policy so incoherent, so knowingly and obviously contradictory, is a declaration of weakness and passivity. And this, as Anthony Cordesman, James Phillips and others have argued, can increase the chance of war. It creates, writes Cordesman, "the same conditions that helped trigger World War II — years of negotiations and threats, where the threats failed to be taken seriously until war became all too real."
This has precipitated the current U.S.-Israeli crisis, sharpened by the president's rebuff of the Israeli prime minister's request for a meeting during his upcoming U.S. visit. Ominous new developments; no Obama response. Alarm bells going off everywhere; Obama plays deaf.
The old arguments, old excuses, old pretensions have become ridiculous:
(1) Sanctions. The director of national intelligence testified to Congress at the beginning of the year that they had zero effect in slowing the nuclear program. Now the International Atomic Energy Agency reports (Aug. 30) that the Iranian nuclear program, far from slowing, is actually accelerating. Iran has doubled the number of high-speed centrifuges at Fordow, the facility outside Qom built into a mountain to make it impregnable to air attack.
This week, the IAEA reported Iranian advances in calculating the explosive power of an atomic warhead. It noted once again Iran's refusal to allow inspection of its weapons testing facility at Parchin, and cited satellite evidence of Iranian attempts to clean up and hide what's gone on there.
The administration's ritual response is that it has imposed the toughest sanctions ever. So what? They're a means, not an end. And they've had no effect on the nuclear program.
(2) Negotiations. The latest, supposedly last-ditch round of talks in Istanbul, Baghdad, then Moscow has completely collapsed. The West even conceded to Iran the right to enrich — shattering a decade-long consensus and six Security Council resolutions demanding its cessation.
Iran's response? Contemptuous rejection.
Why not? The mullahs have strung Obama along for more than three years and still see no credible threat emanating from the one country that could disarm them.
(3) Diplomatic isolation.
The administration boasts that Iran is becoming increasingly isolated. Really? Just two weeks ago, 120 nations showed up in Tehran for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement — against U.S. entreaties not to attend. Even the U.N. secretary-general attended — after the administration implored him not to.
Which shows you what American entreaties are worth today. And the farcical nature of Iran's alleged isolation.
The Obama policy is in shambles. Which is why Cordesman argues that the only way to prevent a nuclear Iran without war is to establish a credible military threat to make Iran recalculate and reconsider. That means U.S. red lines: deadlines beyond which Washington will not allow itself to be strung, as well as benchmark actions that would trigger a response, such as the further hardening of Iran's nuclear facilities to the point of invulnerability and, therefore, irreversibility.
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