in Tuesday's New York Times suggests
that there is a method to the madness of the Republican presidential candidates' hawkish rhetoric on Iran. I had thought that the
reason all the Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) are such
noisy warmongers is because that is their natural proclivity — and because it pleases donors (like Sheldon
Adelson, Newt Gingrich's big campaign funder) who base their political
choices on Binyamin Netanyahu's desires.
But Times reporter Mark
Landler suggests that one of the results of this year's conveniently timed Iran
crisis is to present President Barack Obama with a choice of two options, either
of which the GOP could successfully exploit to defeat him in the election.
As Landler points out:
In late June, when the campaign is
in full swing, Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to take action against
countries, including some staunch allies, if they continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank.
After fierce lobbying by the White
House, which opposed this hardening in the sanctions that have been its main
tool in pressuring Tehran, Congress agreed to modify the legislation to give
Mr. Obama leeway to delay action if he concludes the clampdown would disrupt
the oil market. He may also invoke a waiver to exempt any country from
sanctions based on national security considerations.
Under normal circumstances, a president's decision to invoke a
national security waiver on any foreign policy matter is hard to challenge. In
this case, the president's concern that imposing new sanctions would cause oil
prices to soar (and disrupt economic recovery) would be good reason to pass on
the latest congressional sanctions law.
But the political consequences of waiving could be dire.
Remember, the sanctions law in
question is a creation of AIPAC and has been at
the top of its agenda during this entire Congress. If Obama waives it,
Netanyahu would use the media to make sure that his displeasure was known. The
lobby, the Republican presidential candidate and even many of AIPAC's Democratic
cutouts on Capitol Hill would all scream bloody murder.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), perhaps the member of Congress closest to
AIPAC, told the Times that he would
not look kindly on a waiver and neither would the lobby.
"The first waiver would trigger a whole lot of other waiver
applications, potentially gutting the policy. ... The pro-Israel community would
not want a gutting of the sanctions," he said.
But what if Obama just takes the path of least political resistance
and imposes the sanctions as AIPAC wants?
Then, oil prices rise.
According to the Times,
"Already, Iran's leaders are maneuvering to drive up oil prices, whether to
signal that sanctions could bring repercussions, or to mitigate the effects of
reduced sales. Iran's threat to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a
fifth of the world's oil passes, sent prices soaring this month."
The article also quoted Stuart Eizenstat, a former top official at the
Treasury and State Department who helped devise our Iran policy during
the Clinton administration. According to Eizenstat, "sanctions could
harm the economy and his [Obama's] re-election chances."
In other words, Obama will likely be harmed politically no matter
which way he goes on sanctions.
Of course, the sanctions issue is just a subset of the larger "war
or no war" question. The same political forces that support "crippling" sanctions
(which may cripple us, our allies and ordinary Iranian citizens more than the
Iranian regime) also favor keeping the war option "on the table" in case our
efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program fail.
As is the case with sanctions, there are two options. One is to go
to war, a policy that would tear the country (and especially the Democratic Party)
apart in an election year. The other is to try to negotiate an end to Iran's
nuclear program but, if that fails, simply accept an Iran with a nuclear
capability and "contain" it. That is what we have done with North Korea and Pakistan
and did for many decades with the Soviet Union. That course would infuriate the
Another political lose-lose.
Fortunately, there is a third course, which applies to both the
sanctions and the war questions: we can negotiate.
Writing in The Atlantic,
Robert Wright, a foreign policy expert, suggests a
way out of the current deadlock is to establish a nuclear-free Middle East:
The idea is that Israel and Iran
would open themselves up to highly intrusive inspections--of their declared
nuclear facilities and of any suspicious undeclared sites--and other nations in
the region would agree to monitoring as well. As Israel became assured that
there were no nuclear weapons programs afoot in the region, it would gradually
reduce its nuclear stockpile until, years or even decades from now, it had no
nuclear weapons--but could live secure in the knowledge that none of its
adversaries had them either. (Israel might preserve "breakout
capacity"--the ability to produce a nuke in a matter of months.)
Wright goes on to say that the main objection to this plan is the belief
that Israel would never accept it. But according to a poll conducted by Israel's
Dahaf Institute (an equivalent of the Gallup organization) and cited in a New York Times piece
by Steven Kull and Shibley Telhami, that is simply not true.
When asked whether it would be better for both Israel and Iran to have the bomb, or for neither to have it, 65 percent of Israeli Jews said neither. And a remarkable 64 percent favored the idea of a nuclear-free zone, even when it was explained that this would mean Israel giving up its nuclear weapons.
A clear majority also bought into the idea of opening Israel's and Iran's nuclear facilities to "a system of full international inspections."
The same poll finds that only 43 percent of Jewish Israelis
support a military strike on Iran, although 90 percent assume Iran will
eventually develop the bomb.
The nuclear-free option is worth pursuing, as is every possible
alternative to war. President Obama should start the process by reaching out to
Iran quietly, with the single goal of avoiding war, reducing tensions, and
ending the threats and counter-threats. It is possible he is already doing
that, although the White House (with an eye or two on AIPAC) is
One last point: Why is it relatively
uncontroversial to negotiate with the Taliban — who harbored the terrorists who
killed 3000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and who have terrorized millions
of Afghans for decades — but the idea of talking to Iran is considered beyond
The answer should be obvious. AIPAC and its congressional cutouts
go wild at the thought of negotiating with Iran (or Hamas, for that matter) but
are relatively indifferent to the Taliban who, of course, is far from Israel.
So we can talk to the thugs of the Taliban to bring about some
sort of settlement. But we can't even consider talking to the government of
What a shameful way to conduct foreign policy.