In a presidential race even more devoid of foreign policy debate than usual, Iran and its alleged nuclear quest appear to be the exception. Republican contenders are outdoing each other with hints of military action to prevent the Islamic republic from crossing the nuclear threshold, and President Barack Obama promised in last week’s State of the Union address that “I will take no options off the table” in dealing with Iran.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also said over the weekend that Iran could be only one year away from a working bomb — and that this country would take “whatever steps are necessary” to prevent that from happening.
While most Jews share a foreboding about the idea of these ultimate weapons in the hands of ultimate extremists, there’s little indication that anxiety will have a major impact on Jewish voting in November. The reason is simple: most American Jews are savvy enough to understand that along with genuine concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an unhealthy dose of campaign-trail posturing.
In fact, stopping Iran at this late stage in the game is one of the most complex geopolitical challenges of our era, resistant to both simplistic military solutions and naïve diplomatic ones, with every option — including sanctions — entailing big risks and uncertain prospects for success.
This is not an argument for doing nothing on Iran; it is an argument for demanding more from politicians in both parties than slogans that indicate either a disturbing willingness to use a critical national security issue as a political wedge — or a frightening ignorance of how the confrontation with Iran could play out for a weakened America and a vulnerable Israel.
Israeli media reports are again dark with hints that the country may take military action on its own. That’s understandable, since Israel clearly is the nation most directly threatened by a belligerent Iran, whose leader has vowed on multiple occasions to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth. (But there are also many who agree with this week’s Haaretz editorial arguing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has turned the Iranian nuclear threat into an impressive ploy to distract attention from settlement policy and the perpetuation of the occupation.”)
The problem: many military experts here believe it’s unlikely they could do much more than inflict a slight delay in the Iranian nuclear program while potentially igniting a chain reaction of repercussions almost certain to affect U.S. interests around the world. The Obama administration fears the long-term consequences of a nuclear Iran, but it also fears getting drawn into a protracted and economically ruinous war by an Israeli attack that triggers seismic shocks around the world.
Iran will present the next president with a universe of bad choices. But from a U.S. perspective, some are worse than others. Every major Jewish group advocates toughened sanctions, and the Obama administration is now fully on board after a shaky start.
But history and current geopolitical realities suggest that sanctions, while damaging to the Iranian economy, are unlikely to turn around leaders who have made their atomic quest and their willingness to stand up to international pressure a matter of national pride.
It is far from certain whether the Iranian leaders will decide that the economic and political costs of continuing on their present course outweigh the circling-the-wagons effect they get from what they portray as unfair actions by the Great Satan and its little friend, Israel.
And as long as Iran has oil that everybody else wants, there will continue to be too many countries and companies eager to exploit loopholes in even the toughest sanctions regimes.
I’m not suggesting sanctions aren’t worth pursuing; I am suggesting that campaigning politicians waving the “tighter sanctions” flag generally fail to explain exactly how tightened sanctions will work in the real world.
Then there’s diplomacy.
Obama arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with starry-eyed visions of using diplomacy to convince Iran to change course. Many Jewish leaders saw that as the worst kind of naïvete — and there’s little indication they were wrong. Iran has shown no interest in genuine negotiations.
That leaves the military option, which the president and his GOP rivals all agree must “remain on the table.”
But what, exactly, are they talking about?
Are they still operating under the dangerous delusion that a limited bombing campaign might fix the problem? You know the drill: send in some B-2 stealth bombers, a few hundred cruise missiles and Predator drones — and presto, problem solved on the cheap.
Some analysts suggest that a limited military strike might buy some time for regime change. But it’s just as easy to find serious analysts who say such a military attack would rally support to an unpopular government in Tehran.
The military experts I’ve talked to paint a very different picture. A dispersed, hardened Iranian nuclear program means our vaunted air power is likely to do little more than set Iran back a year or two, at enormous cost.
And what then? Will the government in Tehran suddenly decide its nuclear quest is too risky and give it up?
Don’t bet the farm. A likelier scenario: Iran will accelerate its nuclear program and disperse and harden it even more — and ratchet up efforts to undermine other regional governments that are important to us, like Saudi Arabia, turning the “Arab spring” into the “Islamic extremist spring.”
And Israel will be the bulls-eye of Iranian retaliation by its increasingly well-armed terrorist surrogates in Lebanon and Gaza.
What many military experts have told me over the years is that the only way to guarantee an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is to invade and occupy the country for an extended period, something only the United States can possibly do.
Is this what the war-drum-pounding Republican candidates have in mind? Does Obama, wrestling with an economy crippled by two long wars on the fight-now-pay-later plan, really think we can afford another one?
Remember: compared to conquering Iran, invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was on the level of a student exercise at West Point. The Iranian military is vastly more capable, the country much bigger, the strategic problems far more complicated.
Nor is it realistic to believe the American people will support such a war as the consequences of our military binge of the past decade come home to roost.
For all the GOP candidates — and for an Obama administration whose Iran policies have been no more effective than its predecessors’ — the statement “I won’t allow Iran to go nuclear” is mostly meaningless if not coupled to a practical understanding of the harsh realities of this crisis. Nothing they’ve said so far indicates that kind of understanding.
And it’s not just talk. All this hawkish campaign rhetoric may undermine U.S. credibility as we seek to forge an international coalition to find some solution to the Iran threat. Sanctions are a tough sell in the international community that will be tougher still if sanctions are seen as a prelude to war.
The growing use of Iran into a political wedge issue may help convince the Iranians — who aren’t stupid — that our concerns have no more real significance than the perennial promise to balance the federal budget while slashing taxes.
In the political world, threats of military action are a kind of partisan chest-thumping meant to convey toughness; in the real world, empty threats can be worse than no threats at all.
Scarier still: what if the saber rattlers mean it? What if they are still in the grips of the delusion that limited war is the answer, thus opening the door to all kinds of strategic and geopolitical demons? What if they are thinking about something else — another big, protracted war that might finish off the economic devastation wrought by our Iraq and Afghanistan involvement?
I’m afraid of a nuclear Iran, as all sensible people should be. But I’m just as afraid of reckless politicians who seem to think war and the threat of war are just additional arrows in their partisan quiver.
Jewish voters, by and large, understand these realities. Yes, we fear a nuclear Iran and what it may mean for a vulnerable Israel. But the blithe promises we’re hearing as the presidential campaign heats up aren’t very convincing, and they’re not going to change many Jewish votes.