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Obama’s Iran options

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Michael Gerson
February 24, 2012
— Anyone who has worked at the White House is keenly aware of two gaps.

The first is the gap between the obsessions of the media and the challenges of the country. So Rick Santorum explains his views on the pill and Satan, while nuclear inspectors leave Iran in failure and the president again enters the Situation Room to clarify his flawed options.


The second gap is between the classified knowledge possessed by the White House and the confident cluelessness of commentators. The people making difficult choices on Iran know things we don’t.


But some things can be asserted with confidence. By building a broad international coalition against Iran and applying effective sanctions, the administration has raised the stakes of the confrontation. More accurately, it has built a broad coalition by raising those stakes. After an initial period of naivete, the administration concluded that inducements would not be enough to hold back Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The only hope is the application of costs Iran cannot bear. The resulting sanctions are biting. But having made the case for urgency and concerted action, it would be difficult for President Obama to tell the world “never mind” and shift to a strategy that accepts Iranian membership in the nuclear club.


Sanctions have not caused Iran to back down, but the approach is not yet exhausted. It is worth another twist of the tourniquet to reduce significant exceptions and exemptions. The Iranians have traditionally used diplomatic meetings as a method to weaken sanctions in exchange for the promise of more meetings. A negotiation conducted by America and Europe that eases pressure only as a reward for compliance would send a final signal of seriousness.


The history of negotiations with Iran justifies a cautious pessimism. In the event of failure, one man’s reaction will matter most. And Obama needs to know his mind before indecision begins to limit his options.


The president probably recognizes that the containment of an Iran with nuclear weapons is not a serious option because advocates for this approach are confused about the meaning of containment. Obama could make clear that an Iranian nuclear attack on America would result in the death of every Iranian citizen. The promise of lopsided assured destruction would deter a direct attack on the American homeland. But it would not contain Iran.


Behind a uranium shield, the Iranian regime would increase its support for terrorism and destabilize its neighbors, who would find a nuclear deterrent of their own highly desirable. And how would promises of future containment be minimally credible? If Western nations did nothing before Iran had nuclear weapons, why would they become more determined after Iran possesses them? Permitting a nuclear Iran would mean that everyone, including America and Israel, was bluffing—except Iran.

Obama can’t do nothing. But it is not advisable or practical to launch a multi-week conventional air and naval campaign. So the national security adviser, the secretary of defense and intelligence officials need to provide their boss something better than this dismal, binary choice. They will need to identify a range of in-between options. A virtuous somebody has already been conducting cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and targeting key scientists. Are there other ways—ranging from covert action to stealth bombers—to disable or destroy a few key facilities, including Iran’s two uranium enrichment sites?


An unattributable action would be best—giving groups and governments in the Middle East the excuse to respond in the minimal way. But deniability may not be possible in an operation on this scale. It is a military judgment no outsider can confidently make.


A limited strike, it is true, would only buy time. The message, however, would be clear enough: If you keep at it, we’ll do it again. In the meantime, an oppressive and increasingly desperate regime may lose its grip on power.


Close cooperation with Israel in designing a targeted strike against enrichment facilities would have an added benefit. If the Israelis are convinced that America—after a last diplomatic push—is serious about preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, Israel would be less likely to take quick action of its own. American resolve is the best guarantee of Israeli patience.


Obama wants to be known for winding down long wars. But he has shown no hesitance when it comes to shorter, Israel-style operations. He is a special ops hawk, a drone militarist. Iran should take this fact seriously as it calculates its next move.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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