In President Obama's speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, there were plenty of lines defending Israel, plenty of lines touting the administration's record on defending Israel, and plenty of lines condemning Iran's effort to obtain a nuclear weapon. But the most important line of President Obama's remarks came toward the end of the speech, when he firmly stated, "For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster." The sentiment was received with restrained applause. For the president's critics, it came across as weak and indicative of what they think is a lack of commitment to defend Israel on the president's part. But if there's any policy that would preserve Israel's security, it's one of peace and diplomacy.
This "loose talk of war," as the president put it, has done far more harm than good. Gas prices have risen out of fear that conflict in the region is imminent. Under threat of war, Iran is more emboldened and has been less than cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The bottom line is that words matter. Actions certainly speak louder, but they are precipitated by rhetoric. Words of war inspire fear, and feelings of fear can do one of two things in this situation: move Iran towards the negotiating table or a nuclear weapon. The sentiments communicated by Iran and Israel these past few months make me think the latter is more likely.
This is a dangerous and perpetual cycle; Iran moves further towards nuclear capability, Israel heightens its war rhetoric and Iran moves even further towards obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Just this week, several retired U.S. military generals took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, warning the President against a "war of choice with Iran." Their sentiments were straightforward: "Unless we or an ally is attacked, war should be the option of last resort." There are those who argue that we should practice preventative foreign policy through force. However, I would remind them of the stated reasons we invaded Iraq in 2003.
On the topic of Iraq, however, some argue that Iran actually cooperates out of fear. Certainly, after 9/11, Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan through a variety of ways, including intelligence sharing. However, the Bush administration responded to this aid by dubbing Iran one of the "Axis of Evil" nations in the 2002 State of the Union address. Following the Iraq invasion, Iran even made an offer, now known as the "grand bargain," to suspend their support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and enter negotiations on its nuclear program. The Bush administration flatly rejected even a discussion of the deal. Fear of the United States in Iraq may have pushed Iran towards cooperation in 2003. But the cold response the country received in its efforts to do so catalyzed Iran's desire for independent nuclear power, and it seems clear Iran is less inclined to respond amicably to today's inflamed words.
Bluster would serve Iranian interests further. The imminent threat of war would break any opposition to the current Iranian regime; it would outcast anyone who doesn't support the Ayatollah. The protest and carnage in the streets of Tehran that followed the 2009 presidential elections have not been forgotten. But if there were any courage left among Iranian reformists to stand up to their government, it would be zapped by conflict. This is how oppressive governments work. In Pakistan, for example, the military talks up the threat of India in order to maintain power. However, Iran doesn't even have to do that much work. Israel and the United States are doing it for them. We continue to perpetuate ourselves as a looming enemy that the Iranian regime can point to and rally its citizens around. We are hurting the cause of the very reformists we wish to champion. In Sunday's speech, President Obama rightfully asked Israeli and American leaders to heed a hackneyed but apt quote from President Teddy Roosevelt: "Speak softly; carry a big stick."
The threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is real -- the goal of preventing Iran from doing so is of utmost importance and the consequences of failure are dire. But the consequences of capricious war, of giving up on diplomatic solutions when not all have been exhausted, are equally grave. War, by definition, results in unintended consequences. This is a situation with bad choices and worse choices. My point is not that speaking nicely to Iran will prevent war. It's that loose talk of war won't. There's a deadly poker game going on in the Middle East, and this escalated rhetoric is playing right into Iran's hand.