President Obama has not spent much time in the thankless task of defending the unsigned and more or less non-existent memorandum of understanding between the p5+1 and Iran. The holes in the agreement are far too glaring for that.
Already in 2012, friendly journalist Jeffrey Goldberg listed no less than 13 times that Obama insisted that Iran would never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Goldberg placed himself in the category of those "who take him at his word, in part because he's repeated himself on the subject so many times and in part because he has laid out such an effective argument against containment and for disruption, by force, if necessary."
The president now admits, however, that in twelve years Iran will have a "break-out" time to nuclear weapons of near zero, and that it has already whittled that time down to two or three months over the last 12 years of negotiations.
In short, "all options are on the table" and "I will never allow Iran to obtain a bomb" have now joined "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor" on the list of the president's serial prevarications.
Rather than defend the understanding, the president has preferred to attack opponents of the agreement as warmongers eager to plunge the United States into another ground war in the Middle East and to demand they specify their alternative approach. In a similar vein, hapless State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, dismissed the multi-pronged critique of the agreement by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, saying, "I read a lot of big words and big thoughts. But I didn't read a lot of alternatives." (At least we do not have to fear hearing any big words or big thoughts from Ms. Harf, who once suggested combating ISIS through an international jobs program for disaffected Muslim youth.)
As Israelis have learned during the decades long Oslo process, when critics of Oslo were repeatedly challenged, "What's your alternative?" the question is an almost invariable signal of a weak policy that cannot be defended on its own terms.
And it is a little rich coming from a president and secretary of state both of whom declared repeatedly that "a bad deal is worse than no deal." For if Iran was to be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons in the absence of an agreement on its nuclear program that could obviously only be done by military action or an effective blockade of the country. Presumably they were not being warmongers when they made those statements.
IN RETROSPECT, it is clear that President Obama never contemplated military action against Iran. For one thing, he represents the ever-growing wing of the Democratic Party for which American military might is anathema and never to be applied, except where totally riskless – e.g., drone attacks or "leading from behind" in Libya. (The Libyan intervention still managed to open a Pandora's box by creating a failed state that has become a safe haven for multiple terrorist groups.)
Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton largely on the strength of being the anti-war candidate who voted against the Iraq War Resolution. And he knows that the one thing that his political base would never forgive is involvement of American ground troops in the Middle East. His accusation that opponents of the Lausanne understanding would plunge America into another ground war must be understood in that context. The charge, however, is false. The destruction of Iran's nuclear infrastructure would not require a ground war in any foreseeable scenario.
The clearest indication that the president never considered military action as an option is the way in which the p5+1 negotiations have been carried out since the United States joined them in late 2013. At every juncture, the American bargaining posture has been that of a supplicant prepared to accept whatever agreement Iran would sign. A recent senior Iranian defector described the U.S. role as serving as Iran's spokesperson to the other P5+1 members.
Yet, on paper, the West entered those negotiations with by far the stronger hand. Sanctions against Iran had brought the Iranian economy to the breaking point, and the United States enjoys overwhelming military superiority over Iran, including the ability to destroy its nuclear infrastructure.
Even before the latest round of negotiations commenced, the West dropped its insistence that Iran give up its nuclear enrichment program. At the same time, it played along with the fiction that Iran's nuclear enrichment program might have a benign civilian intent and that all Iran had to do was demonstrate that benign intent. Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have given credence to the possibility of benign Iranian intent by repeatedly citing and expressing their great respect for a non-existent fatwa by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini against the use of nuclear weapons.
Yet the fiction of a civilian program was never remotely tenable. Iran's oil and gas reserves are so great that it has no need for nuclear power in the foreseeable future. And even if it did, it would be far cheaper for Iran to purchase nuclear fuel than to enrich it itself.
The president himself has pointed out that a civilian program would have had no need for a nuclear facility burrowed deep underground at Fodrow, and which was never revealed to the prying eyes of the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nor would a civilian program have use for the heavy water reactor at Arak capable of producing plutonium for a bomb.
In the course of negotiations, the United States also dropped its demands with respect to the number of centrifuges Iran can maintain and the disposition of those no longer in operation, the shuttering of the secretly constructed Fordow facility, the ending of Iran's ballistic missile program, which puts the entire West, including the United States in its sights, the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran, and has agreed to a sunset provision that would end the restrictions on the Iranian program little more than a decade from now.
Leading up to the so-called understanding, the West further caved on its demands for surprise inspections and for Iran to provide the IAEA with a full description of all its previous work on weaponization, without which it is impossible to determine what new work is being undertaken.
Most jaw-dropping of all, President Obama barely broke stride when Supreme Leader Khameini insisted that all sanctions must end the moment a final agreement is signed and declared that Iran's military bases would be off limits to IAEA inspectors, though it is known that Iran earlier conducted weaponization research at its Parchin military facility. The end of sanctions effectively means the end of the last shred of leverage to secure Iranian compliance with any agreement. Yet Obama called upon American diplomats to engage in "creative diplomacy" to satisfy the Supreme Leader.
Another clue to Obama's aversion to military action from the beginning came last Friday. The State Department had dutifully protested Russia's decision to sell $800 billion in S-300 advanced, anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, at least until a final agreement is signed. But President Obama only expressed surprise that Russia had refrained for so long from selling the anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, especially as sanctions against Iran do not apply to "defensive" weaponry.
The president seems to prefer that Iran be immunized from attack, especially by Israel. That is consistent with longstanding reports that he warned Prime Minister Netanyahu that the U.S. would confront any Israeli bombers headed towards Iran that entered U.S.- controlled airspace.
The Russian S-300s, incidentally, can easily be transferred to Hezbollah and Syria to deny Israel the air superiority that is crucial to its ability to defend against massive missile barrages from Lebanon. (Iran is already providing Hezbollah with advanced guided missiles that will be able to evade Iron Dome.)
LEFT TO BE CONSIDERED are the arguments sometimes advanced against military action to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure should Iran not abandon its nuclear ambitions. As we argued last week, any negative consequences would have to be balanced against the peril of widespread nuclear proliferation and potential conflagration sure to follow from Iran securing nuclear threshold status.
But even on their own terms, the uncertainties and dangers of a military attack are overstated. It is often argued, for instance, that a military attack would do no more than set back Iran's nuclear program by two or three years because "you can't bomb knowledge" and Iran already knows how to build a bomb.
The first weakness of this argument is that it assumes that one is the limit for such attacks. It is not. Once the United States had shown its determination to use its military power to prevent a nuclear Iran, why would Iran instantly re-embark on a nuclear weapons program, which would likely face the same fate? The deterrent effect would remain in place.
Moreover, the argument "you can't bomb knowledge" is largely irrelevant. As Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in his speech to Congress, knowledge without the nuclear infrastructure is not a threat. The difficult part of building a nuclear weapon is not the knowledge of how to do so. That can be readily obtained today on the Internet. David Samuels profiled in the New Yorker, John Coster-Mullen, a highly intelligent truck driver, who was able to reverse-engineer the two bombs dropped on Japan, based on his knowledge of commercial photography and decoding of old documents.
The difficult part, writes Lee Smith of the Fund for the Defense of Democracies, is building the industrial, technological and economic complex required to sustain a nuclear weapons program. Iran is not among that group of nations with the indigenous capacity to do so. That is why it has taken it 25 years to purchase, steal and smuggle the elements needed for a nuclear program. It would have to start all over again.
True, as we wrote last week, Iran would likely respond to an attack by unleashing sleeper terror cells around the world. And undoubtedly, Hezbollah would respond with missile attacks on Israel.
With respect to the first threat, however, it must be remembered that Iran is a state with many assets capable of being destroyed from the air, including those of the ruling Revolutionary Guard that has grown rich since 1979 and will not be eager to see its wealth destroyed or those wishing to overthrow the mullahs emboldened. On that level, at least, Iran is subject to deterrence.
And Israel would much rather face the Hezbollah attack (which its military planners are expecting in any event) now, when Hezbollah is not operating under an Iranian nuclear umbrella and does not yet possess advanced anti-aircraft defenses.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror summed up the matter succinctly this week, "The truth is the U.S. can bring Iran's nuclear program to a halt – it simply chooses not to do so."