My last post claimed vindication for my long-standing position that President Obama was being disingenuous when in the run-up to the Iranian nuclear negotiations he insisted he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions. In my view, the tough talk was a show intended more to restrain the prospect of Israeli military action rather than coerce Iranian behavior, especially in the key 2012-2013 period.
As I noted in a series of posts back then (see here, here, here and here), a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts had lined up on the other side of the argument. Among them was Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term. Three years back, he asserted that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”
Mr. Ross elaborates on this point in his just-published book, excerpts of which appear in Politico. He reports that President Obama early in his administration directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and that measures were taken to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Yet the evidence Ross proffers cuts both ways, as when he acknowledges that the additional deployments of missile defenses and naval forces were motivated in part by a desire to be ready for Iranian retaliation in the event Israel undertook its own military action against Tehran, a contingency that much worried the Obama White House. He notes too that the Israeli government regularly suspected that the Obama administration had gone wobbly on Iran. In fact, by late 2013 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded (wrongly, Ross insists) that Mr. Obama had lost the personal will to keep up the military and economic pressure on Tehran.
Ross also outlines the sharp lack of consensus within the Obama administration over the ultimate aim of U.S. policy – that is, whether Washington should be prepared to back up its rhetoric with military force in the event Iran did develop nuclear weapons or acquiesce to this event and work to contain the regional military consequences. As he puts it …
… there was debate over whether we should use force to prevent the Iranians from crossing the threshold if crippling economic sanctions, isolation and diplomatic pressure and negotiations failed to do so. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough. They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit.
(By the way, this debate found public expression in a May 2013 report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, which was put out by a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. It argued that a policy of containment “may eventually become the only path left.” Significantly, the report’s co-author was Colin H. Kahl, who had served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term. Noteworthy too is that Kahl rejoined the administration a year ago as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor.)
Where Mr. Obama came down in this internal debate is unclear. Ross contends he urged the president in early 2010 to jettison the vague statement that Iran nuclear proliferation was “unacceptable” in favor of a stiffer formulation along the lines that the U.S. was “determined to prevent” this outcome. Obama finally accepted the more definitive language but only after thinking about it overnight. It is striking though that even this formulation is not as robust as the bold redline the president drew in mid-2012 regarding Syrian chemical weapons use and then ultimately abandoned when his bluff was called.
Indeed, looking at the contours of Mr. Obama’s current policy on Syria – especially the conspicuous doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military power and the obvious desire for strategic retrenchment from the Greater Middle East – it remains difficult to pay any credence to Mr. Obama’s earlier words on Iran.