Robert Malley says that even if President Obama won this week’s argument in his ongoing struggle with Benjamin Netanyahu over how to confront Iran (a struggle that has already stymied any serious diplomacy), Obama appears to have narrowed his options so much that war may eventually be unavoidable.
For now at least, most commentators in the United States and in Israel have handed this round to Obama. He had two overriding objectives: to deflect Israeli pressure to conduct, or acquiesce in, a premature war; and to neutralize Republican criticism that he is too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel. On those fronts, one might say, mission accomplished.
But victory came at a price. In the longer run, Obama’s nuanced view and the arguments he marshaled on behalf of diplomacy may be less significant than the broader narrative in which, in order to prevail, he felt compelled to embed them. More openly than in the past, he took containment of a nuclear-armed Iran off the table — even before any serious discussion of this option has taken place and just as influential U.S. voices had begun making the case for it. More clearly than previously, he recognized Israel’s right to its own decisions; Netanyahu took the bait — or rather, grabbed it with enthusiasm, turning a banal acknowledgment of reality into an implicit license for Israel to unilaterally initiate action that will have broad and possibly dire consequences for all. And, more forcefully than before, Obama committed America to military action to halt Iran if other means fail to do so.
That day of reckoning may have been delayed. But short of a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iranian relations, it looks as though it will yet come. Israelis, not for the first time, likely are exaggerating the Iranian threat and its imminence. Yet they almost certainly are right in one respect: that sanctions could work and nonetheless fail, inflicting harsh economic pain yet incapable of producing a genuine change in Tehran’s calculus. There is no evidence that Iran’s leadership will yield to economic hardship; the outlook of its Supreme Leader rests on the core principle that the only thing more dangerous than experiencing pressure is surrendering to it. Seen through the regime’s eyes, such stubbornness is easy to understand. From its perspective, measures taken by its foes, including attacks on its territory, bolstering the arsenal of its Gulf enemies, and economic warfare, have a single purpose: namely, to topple the Islamic Republic. Under such conditions, why would the regime volunteer a concession that arguably would leave it weaker in a hostile environment? Even as he fought off the prospect of an imminent confrontation, Obama might therefore have bought himself — or his eventual successor — one down the road. For if and when sanctions fail, what alternative will there be to turn to?