This week President Obama silenced the drums of war sounded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Republican leaders to attack Iran; but not for long.
Against the backdrop of the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, Netanyahu railed that Iran was on the brink of enriching uranium to weapons grade level and threatened to launch unilateral air strikes against Tehran. GOP presidential hopefuls endorsed the call for “Holy War,” and decried Obama’s policy toward Iran as “appeasement.” As expected, Obama told AIPAC conventioneers that he has “Israel’s back,” and implored all to give “sanctions” and “diplomacy” a chance.” We’ve seen this movie before, right? Wrong.
This year is dramatically different. The difference is not that since November 2011, Iran has tripled its monthly production of enriched uranium, according to the latest IAEA report. The real game changer is how the explosive fallout from the Arab Spring risings has caused Israel and Republican Party hawks to re-calibrate the nuclear equation with Iran. In short, Bibi and his coterie of GOP Vulcans now believe that Tehran is on the ropes, and a quick knock-out strike could crack the foundation of Iran’s anti-American bloc across the Middle East.
Syria—Iran’s chief client state—is rapidly descending into civil war. Iran is also reeling from the devastating impact of economic sanctions and growing internal leadership divisions. Last week, conservative anti-Ahmadinejad forces scored landslide victories in the nation’s parliamentary elections. Thus, Netanyahu’s geopolitical calculation is that deep air strikes would not only set back Iran’s nuclear program two or three years, but the internal chaos would severely limit Tehran’s capacity to prop up Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and HAMAS in the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s “red line” for attacking Iran when it possesses enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon is thinly veiled code to strike now. Taking his cue directly from Netanyahu, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced to AIPAC that he will introduce new legislation in Congress that reads “If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program.”
Netanyahu and the GOP Vulcans’ position stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s marker articulated by Defense Secretary Panetta last month. Testifying before Congress, Panetta said “Our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon.” Doubling down, Panetta added “The United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz. That’s another red line for us and … we will respond to them.”
The daylight between Netanyahu’s “strike now” policy and President Obama’s emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy is not a conflict over the end goal. Furthermore, claims by Obama’s detractors that his Iran policy is one of appeasement strains credulity. When, Obama said, “everything is on the table” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, that includes low-intensity warfare in the present tense.
In 2010, Iran’s Natanz nuclear facilities were attacked by the American-Israeli designed computer worm Stuxnet, destroying at least 1,000 centrifuges. In June 2010, Obama also expanded secret intelligence gathering operations in Iran and continues to fund Iranian opposition groups. Moreover, the administration has stood mute on the murder of five Iranian nuclear scientists from 2010 to February 2012. Commenting on the assassinations former CIA Agent Robert Baer said “If you look at the choice of targets it really could only be Israel. My theory is that Israel couldn’t get the White House to agree to bombing. It is not satisfied with sanctions, so the Israelis are trying to provoke the Iranians into launching a missile and starting a war.” Thus far, Iran hasn’t taken the bait.
Conversely, President Obama will not be manipulated into attacking a nation with no verified nuclear weapons program or nuclear weapon. Nor will he be bullied by Netanyahu’s attempt at nuclear blackmail. Like Netanyahu, Obama thinks Iran is on the ropes. Unlike Netanyahu, Obama wants to strangle Iran; first cutting it off from Syria, then slowly choking the life out of its aging clerical establishment until it collapses or is overthrown by its own people.