US President Barack Obama did what few people expected him to do at the recent conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a hawkish pro-Israel group. He chose that moment to shift his strategy from out-hawking the hawks (which is next to impossible) to outsmarting them.
He refused to yield to the pressure of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC on the Iranian nuclear issue. Israel, like the US during the George W. Bush administration, considers a nuclear capability in Iran to be a “red line.” Israel argues that the only acceptable guarantee that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon is for Iran to have no uranium enrichment program.
The Obama administration puts the red line not at enrichment, which is permitted under international law, but at actual nuclear weapons. This definition is clearer, more enforceable and also has the force of international law behind it.
Netanyahu’s red line is a fast track to an unnecessary and counterproductive war. That is why the US military and Obama so adamantly oppose it — because it would cause not only war, but most likely a nuclear-armed Iran down the road.
With the backing of the US military, Obama stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as his red line. Nowhere in his address to AIPAC did he address or even mention the threat posed by nuclear capability. Instead, he spoke of the need for diplomacy.
Netanyahu left Washington empty-handed on Iran. Consequently, momentum has shifted against war, with Obama leading the charge for diplomacy.
Obama’s new posture is primarily due to his growing confidence about reelection as a result of the prolonged and indecisive Republican primaries, as well as the US military’s stiff resistance to war and a groundswell of opposition to war among the general public.
But the shift in momentum does not mean that peace has been secured. What Netanyahu could not get during his face-to-face meeting with Obama at the White House, hardliners in Congress are trying to force upon the President.
As my colleague Jamal Abdi points out, Senators Graham (R-SC), Casey (D-PA) and Lieberman (I-CT) have introduced a resolution in the Senate that effectively says the U.S. will go to war if Iran acquires an undefined "capability" to build a nuclear weapon. They explain this further in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
"Some have asked why our resolution sets the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a ‘nuclear weapons capability,’ rather than ‘nuclear weapons.’ The reason is that all of the destabilizing consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran will ensue as soon as Iranians have the components necessary for a weapon — and by then, it will be too late to stop them.”
What the senators fail to share with the American public is that to implement Netanyahu’s red line, all of Iran’s nuclear facilities must be destroyed, all of their nuclear scientists must be killed and all physics books in Iran must be burnt. You can’t achieve that through a mythical surgical strike; even a full-scale invasion might not achieve such a goal.
A senior former US military official tells me that an invasion would require at least 700,000 US troops, an additional 100,000 troops from allies and a ten-year occupation of Iran.
No wonder the US military is dead set against this folly.
But with some in Congress carrying on Netanyahu’s fight for him, clearly the battle for peace is not over. The year 2012 will remain a year of conflict management and avoidance of disaster. If that succeeds — and Iranian hardliners, the Israeli Likud, its Beltway supporters and Congress are held at bay — then 2013 could become the year of conflict resolution.
Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012)