President Obama had a somewhat contradictory message for the AIPAC conference on Sunday, an outgrowth of his typical play for a middle course in any and all things. On the one hand, he decried “loose talk of war”:
Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. 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; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick. As we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve, and that our coordination with Israel will continue.
On the other hand, he exhibited… loose talk of war:
We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power. A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.
Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.
There is a sense where this is actually positive, as the President drew the red line at Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon rather than obtaining a nuclear capability, which has increasingly been Israel’s red line. And there are reports that Obama will warn Benjamin Netanyahu today not to engage in unilateral strikes on Iran.
But in a very real sense, Obama’s words represented a threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran. A threat that violates the UN Charter, incidentally.
Even if you believe that Obama, beset by war hawks at all sides, is practically the only one in a position of power trying to make sanctions work instead, you must understand that sanctions reflect an attempt to starve the Iranian people, without moving it necessarily toward a goal of denuclearization. Juan Cole has an excellent rundown of the dangers of the sanctions regime. Here’s an excerpt:
1. One basic problem with a dire sanctions regime like that imposed on Iraq, and now on Iran, is that it can kill a lot of innocent civilians, including children. Because the US interdicted chlorine exports to Iraq and had knocked out its electricity and water purification plants in the Gulf War, it is estimated that the US/ UN sanctions killed about 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s. Infants are especially vulnerable to dying of diarrhea and dehydration from gastrointestinal diseases.
2. In turn, this killing of so many children made other Arabs and Muslims angry at the US, and these deaths were also cited by Usamah Bin Laden as one of the reasons he sought to attack the United States. That is, the human toll of sanctions can cause the sanctioning country to suffer reprisals.
3. Onerous sanctions do not remove a regime or cause it to change policies, since the elite can cushion themselves from the effects. The Baath Party in Iraq in the 1990s squirreled away billions of dollars, even as the Iraqi middle classes were devastated and many Iraqis began living on the edge, with insufficient food and medicine.
Cole has seven more. Collective punishment of this kind also violates international law. Among other things, he adds that the sanctions have rallied public support in Iran to the besieged regime, which not but three years ago faced widespread protests. In weekend elections, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hardline supporters captured 75% of the seats, easily defeating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s charges and moving the country in a more authoritarian direction (even Ahmadinejad’s sister lost). The sanctions almost certainly had something to do with this.
Fortunately, Khamenei has said publicly that “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” and that the Islamic Republic “considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.” This is a statement you never hear in US media, but he said it just a couple weeks ago. If you suspect that Khamenei is lying, you have to apply that across the board and suspect that Iranian leaders lie when they say they want to “wipe Israel off the map” (which actually is a misinterpretation of the translation). And you have to explain why he has said this for many years.
The hope is that the new hardliner government will operationalize Khamenei’s clear statement about nuclear weapons. In fact, the consensus of the US intelligence community reveals that Iran has not decided to pursue nuclear weapons. That explains the goalpost shift attempt to “nuclear capability” from “nuclear weapon.”
Even if you believe that Obama is trying to stave off unilateral action from Netanyahu, the imminent war threat, and working a longer-term game with sanctions, you have to acknowledge that the sanctions themselves bring with them danger and potential for war.
Some leading retired military figures have a full-page ad in today’s Washington Post arguing against a war of choice with Iran. They argue that “peaceful solutions are still possible.” But with the sanctions regime, we’ve already gone past that marker.