photo by Glenn Fawcett, courtesy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Flickr
President Obama and his administration have insisted for years that the world’s sole remaining superpower would never allow the Iranian regime to have nuclear weapons, and that “all options,” including military force, were on the table to enforce that position.
As far back as 2012, The Atlantic described the phrase “all options are on the table” regarding Iran as nearly “a ritual incantation” from American and Israeli officials. As recently as late July, Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz returned to it in an opinion column in The Washington Post, saying that the proposed deal “takes none of our options off the table,” and drawing criticism from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by doing so.
“The table they are talking about has broken legs,” Rouhani claimed.
It would be easy to conclude that Obama has now taken the military option off the table, broken or otherwise, with his position that the tepid deal he negotiated with Tehran, which is fairly easy to circumvent and simple to just wait out, is better than any alternative - and that the only alternatives are the eventual use of force.
That’s the easy conclusion, but probably wrong. The Iranians likely had a clearer view, which is that the military option was never truly on the table in the first place.
Obama withdrew all U.S. military force from Iran’s next-door neighbor Iraq in 2011, not because Iraq’s security situation justified doing so - a point that has been tragically demonstrated in the four years since - but to fulfill a campaign pledge he made in 2008 in time for his 2012 re-election bid. It is no coincidence that the secret talks with Iran that laid the groundwork for Obama’s deal began in 2012, when the troops that would have had direct access to the Islamic Republic were gone.
That didn’t stop the administration from assuring critics, especially in Israel, that a military response was still an option, even as the negotiations moved into their final phase earlier this year. The pledge served its purpose, which was not to prod the Iranians into abandoning the military aspects of their nuclear program, but to prevent the Israelis from taking unilateral action to stop it while that was still militarily feasible. It was an effective negotiating trick. Too bad we used it against a friendly regime, rather than the hostile one on the other side of the table.
The “snap-back” of sanctions for Iranian violations of the agreement has been aptly criticized as illusory, just as much as the nonexistent military option. So have the “anytime, anyplace” inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency that are supposed to detect such cheating. So has Iran’s disclosure of the military dimensions of its past atomic activity. All of these were firmly held American demands, the “red lines” that the Obama administration would not cross in order to get a deal.
Unfortunately, we all know what happens when this president draws red lines.
In his defense of this misbegotten agreement, the president made one argument that was indisputably correct: There are other avenues besides military force to achieve critical American goals in the region. It was not a military threat that brought the Iranians to the negotiations in the first place; it was already evident to them, if not to the self-deluded president and his entourage, that there was no threat once he left Iraq to its own devices and those of the Iranians. It wasn’t the hope of keeping America out of another Middle East conflict that got Russia and China to join the negotiations, either. It was American economic influence - specifically the risk that any nation or company doing business with Iran could be cut off from the global financial system, in which America remains the heart and Iran is basically irrelevant. Iran’s business and resources are important to Russia and China, and its antagonism of Washington is useful to them too, but it is worth a lot less than access to dollars and the ability to move those dollars around the world. So if forced to choose, they would comply - and have complied - with American demands.
The best way to maximize American influence in these negotiations would have been to exert maximum power in all its dimensions: a credible military option as a final check, but long before that, the risk of increasing financial isolation that just might have made the cost of owning nuclear weapons more than the Iranians were prepared to bear, or at least enough to constrain their ability to project their destructive influence around the region to the extent they do now. An American policy that would encourage oil and gas exports to Asia through new pipelines and terminals leading to the West Coast would probably have worried Iran’s Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guard a lot more than our empty threats of military force.
But this would have required the president to use America’s status as a superpower in ways that run counter to his fundamental beliefs and priorities. America filled that superpower role when Obama came into office, but we have largely vacated it as the president prepares to leave. And in a world with no dominant power, Iran and a lot of other bad actors are free to do pretty much whatever they want.
The president tells us we should sign on to his deal because there are no better options. Though I think the deal should be rejected, I readily concede that he has a point. If there are no better options left, though, it is because he has taken all of them off the table.