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Jeremy Ben-Ami

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The Right Question

Posted: 06/28/2012 2:44 pm

As diplomacy with Iran has so far failed to yield a breakthrough, the heat is rising in the debate over Iran in both American politics and the Jewish community.

Politically conservative operatives looking to paint Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy insist "we've had enough talk" with Iran and that "the time for action" has come. Leading the charge, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) is now running ads contending essentially that nothing short of war constitutes action.

In a sign the political heat may be having an impact, 44 Senators recently signed a letter to the president echoing the notion that "the window for diplomacy is closing" and asking him to make clear that he really means that there is a "credible military option."

The heat is on as well in the Jewish communal debate. Some, like Alan Dershowitz, are asking those who believe diplomacy and sanctions should be given more time to pledge that they see military force as an option and would support its eventual use. Dershowitz explicitly, and others implicitly, even make support for military action a condition for being considered pro-Israel.

Lost in the frenzy are the voices of the many security experts -- American and Israeli -- who argue that a military attack would be unlikely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and could lead to a far larger regional war.

At best, experts say, military action may set back Iran's ambitions by one to three years while solidifying political support for a weak regime at home and providing justification for the claim that their country is under attack and needs the most advanced weapons possible.

Also lost it seems is any acknowledgement that sanctions are actually working. Iran's currency has lost half its value in ten months. Oil exports are down by 40 percent over the past year -- and that's before the European oil embargo goes into effect on July 1. Consumer prices are up 40 percent at precisely the moment the currency is losing its purchasing power.

Iran is feeling the heat, and time will only make Iran's situation more dire.

Why, then, the insistence -- just as sanctions begin to bite -- that the president and his supporters pledge a willingness to use military force?

The answer unfortunately seems to rest less in the national interest than in communal and electoral politics.

It is not unreasonable to consider that for Mr. Kristol and ECI, the primary interest is in damaging the president in an election year. And some in the Jewish community seem more interested in discrediting skeptics of the use of force than in discussing seriously what will best prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

As Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military on the planet, President Obama always has the option to request Congressional authority to use force. There's no reason to ask him to pre-emptively rule out that option.

That doesn't change the argument that the use of force may be ill-advised. Haven't we learned painfully over the past generation or two that just because we have the military power to take action doesn't make it the wisest course?

And don't we understand that repeated threats to use force actually strengthen the Iranian regime and undermine President Obama's diplomatic efforts? Constant threats to attack actually unite the Iranian people behind their otherwise-unpopular leaders against "western aggression" thereby relieving much of the pressure on the government generated by international sanctions and domestic opposition.

And what about the option of negotiating a deal that allows Iran the ability to enrich uranium for civilian purposes while under a regime of intrusive and effective inspections? No less a forceful voice on the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran than Dennis Ross argued last week in The New Republic that the time has come to put forward a comprehensive deal along those lines.

Shouldn't this too be an option that is "on the table"? Maybe we need to clearly ask the hawks whether "all" options on the table include a negotiated resolution that allows Iran to maintain a civilian nuclear program.

They'll undoubtedly say why, in their opinion, that's ill-advised. Negotiations won't work, they'll say, and no inspection regime would be thorough enough to ensure compliance.

Those looking to advance political or communal agendas through pressing militarism and portraying diplomacy as weak are playing with fire. They run the risk of greasing the path to ill-advised military action that could set back rather than advance the interests of the United States and Israel.

The right question to ask isn't whether all options are on the table -- because clearly they are -- but which is the most likely to achieve the right outcome with the least danger of making the region and the world even more dangerous.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the President of J Street, the political home of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

 

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