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The Nuclear Options

Barack Obama's Iran policy is frustrating, slow-moving, and fraught with uncertainty. But have you taken a look at the alternatives?

President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to make a sharp break with George W. Bush's policy on nuclear nonproliferation. Obama and his team believed that the only way they could get allies to support a tough line against countries like Iran or North Korea that were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was to comply with the United States' own obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its nuclear stockpile. One of Obama's leading nonproliferation experts admitted to me in the early days of the administration that this sounded very much like "an article of faith" adopted by untested idealists. "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated," he said. "The administration will be going to these countries to say, 'We're doing our part; now you have to do your part.'"

You could read the report on Iran's nuclear program released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say, "Proposition refuted." Certainly Obama's critics have. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney writes that thanks to "the administration's extraordinary record of failure," Iran is "making rapid headway toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons." In fact, the report dwells almost entirely on events that happened long before Obama took office and essentially offers an official imprimatur to the widespread view that Iran has been seeking for years to develop a nuclear warhead and is continuing to do so. Neither Bush nor Obama has stopped Iran from pursuing a goal to which Iranian leaders are single-mindedly dedicated -- nor could they have. But Obama's strategy has thrown a spanner into Iran's nuclear works. On balance, the proposition survives.

Iran is still enriching uranium and is now estimated to have enough to produce four bombs. Enriching uranium to the level required for a weapon is the hardest part of the nuclear process; the advances in hardware uncovered by the IAEA only confirm the belief that Iran is going to the immense trouble of developing an enrichment capacity in order to be able to build a bomb. But according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of centrifuges spinning at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant peaked at 9,000 in November 2009 and has since fallen. What's more, the average productivity of each centrifuge has fallen over the past year. And Iran may no longer be able to build more centrifuges. There are various reasons for these problems: the Stuxnet virus, which crippled Iran's productive capacity; poor centrifuge design; metal fatigue; and the shortage of key materials owing to U.N. sanctions passed in 2010.    

Obama doesn't get credit for metal fatigue, but he probably does for Stuxnet, which appears to have been a joint Israeli-American venture. In fact, Obama's Iran policy is less rule-abiding, and more sophisticated, than the administration lets on and its critics allow. But it would be a mistake to think that it's only the dark arts that matter. Obama's initial efforts to engage Iran through diplomacy went nowhere, but allowed U.S. officials to argue inside the United Nations and the IAEA board of governors that they had made a good-faith effort to end the isolation that the Bush administration had imposed on Iran. The president's embrace of nuclear abolitionism and his strong push for an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians countered the argument, common throughout the developing world, that the United States was a nuclear hypocrite -- that it was violating the same international rules that it was insisting that Iran observe. The combination of engagement and NPT-compliance has helped Obama persuade Russia, China, and other states to pass tough sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.

I asked Nicholas Burns, the career diplomat who handled the Iran file as undersecretary of state in Bush's second term, how he assessed Obama's strategy. Burns argues that both Bush and Obama pursued a "two-track" policy of carrots and sticks, but says that Obama "has been very effective in gaining the upper hand in terms of public opinion over [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership." Iran's president played up his anti-Americanism to achieve heroic status in Bush's last years. Now he is almost wholly isolated. Burns describes the Obama strategy, with something like professional admiration, as "very artful."

I can hear Romney sputtering, "Who cares if Ahmadinejad has no friends if Iran is still enriching uranium?" The goal, after all, is not to be artful but to stop Iran from producing a bomb. But isolating the Iranian leadership, like slowing down the centrifuges, is a means of buying time. And time does not have to be on Iran's side, though it has been so far. David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, compares the struggle against Iran to that against apartheid South Africa: a long-term campaign of isolation.

Administration officials say that their strategy is working because diplomacy has stripped away the Iranians' global standing, while sanctions have begun to cripple their economy. The White House responded to my request for comment by pointing me to a Washington Post story that quotes Ahmadinejad defending his economic record before Iran's parliament by complaining that "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore." The U.S. goal is to make Iran pay a high enough price for its nuclear program -- while at the same time holding out the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic rapprochement -- that the leadership will ultimately agree on some face-saving solution that allows Iran to pretend that all it was seeking all along was access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad may even have been making such a bid in his recent offer to stop enriching uranium in exchange for guaranteed access to a supply of 20 percent enriched uranium from abroad. It would hardly be unprecedented: In the past, leaders in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere have abandoned nuclear programs in the face of pressure.

Or maybe Ahmadinejad was messing with the West, as he has in the past. Iran is not South Korea; it is both a rising regional power and a revolutionary state, and its leadership, whatever it says, seems to be united in viewing a nuclear weapons capacity as an ideological and geopolitical necessity. Iran may be more like the Pakistan of the 1970s, whose people were prepared to "eat grass," as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, to get the bomb. Neither carrots nor sticks may induce the Iranians to abandon their quest. If that's so, then nothing save war, or at least the credible threat of war, will work. Obama, of course, has not foreclosed that option, but Romney vows that as president he would "prepare for war."

So those are our choices: a frustrating, second-best policy of playing by the rules in order to gather and preserve a coalition, gradually raising the pressure, buying time, and putting off the day of reckoning in the hopes that something will change and the Iranians will decide they'd rather not eat grass -- or prepare for war. But you can't threaten a war unless you're willing to launch one; and an aerial assault on Iran, whether carried out by the United States or Israel, would provoke a spasm of revenge attacks against America, and wreck the country's standing in much of the Islamic world and above all among the pro-American people of Iran -- all to the end of damaging, not destroying, Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It would purchase delay at an unimaginable cost. And it would guarantee that the Iranians would eat grass to build a bomb.

Compared to that, a second-best policy looks pretty artful.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Hawks' New Flight Pattern

Neocons blew off concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq in 2003. Why are they so obsessed with it now?

Who lost Iraq? Why, Barack Obama, of course. Obama's critics have seized on his announcement that all American troops would be leaving Iraq by the end of this year to blame him for losing the war, and squandering eight years' worth of blood and treasure. "Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq," Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan wrote in the Los Angeles Times. The decision was "a tragedy, not a triumph," lamented the Wall Street Journal's Max Boot. "The Iranians are already hailing it as a great victory and, for once, they're right," harrumphed Sen. John McCain.

This is preposterous. First, and most obviously, it was George W. Bush who made a mess of Iraq, and then dumped the mess on his successor. And the Obama administration's failure to persuade the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to permit a residual U.S. force to remain beyond 2011 may be a misfortune, but it's hardly a calamity. If 700,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers can't defend Iraq from Iranian ambitions and from the country's own internal divisions, than neither can a few thousand, or even 10,000, American troops. The United States never had as much leverage in Iraq as it thought it did; the Iraqis want to make their own choices, and their own mistakes, and the Americans now have no alternative but to let them do so.

The claim that Obama could have produced a different outcome if he had wanted to is very tenuous. It's true that the president and his senior aides have been disingenuous in claiming to be content with the situation in which they now find themselves. The White House wanted a small force to remain behind to train Iraqi soldiers, to deter terrorist attacks, and perhaps to help keep the peace along the internal border between northern Iraq and Kurdistan; many Iraqis wanted this as well. But the Obama administration was never going to permit troops to remain without an offical pledge of legal immunity from Iraqi courts, and Iraq's leadership was unanimous in refusing to grant that right. The Iraqis wanted their sovereignty back more than they wanted that extra layer of protection. "It became increasingly clear to us that the politics were not going to allow Iraq to get to that point," a senior White House official said to me. "They made it crystal clear that they wanted a clean break with the past; the so-called occupation was over."

It's also true that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops to remain beyond 2011, from the 15,000 or so his commanders wanted to only 3,000 to 5,000. Boot claims that Iraq's leaders might have defied "the domestic backlash" they would face over granting immunity in order to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, but not for the modest contingent Obama finally settled on; but there's little evidence for that claim. Others, including Foreign Policy, have insisted that the troops could have been, in effect, re-hatted as State Department employees and granted diplomatic immunity. The White House official I spoke to said, "Our lawyers looked at this left, right, and upside-down. There was no legal theory to support it without accepting significant risk to our troops. The president was not willing to accept that risk." It may be true that Obama would have tried harder if he hadn't also wanted to honor the campaign pledge he made to withdraw the troops from Iraq. But with the American people almost as sick of Iraq as the Iraqis are of the United States, Obama would have had no support at home for raising the stakes.

So Obama is almost certainly not at fault -- but that still doesn't tell us how bad the consequences of the American withdrawal will be. Of course, that depends on what we're worried about. Iraqi leaders have failed almost completely to confront the issues that still divide Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, among them oil revenues, internal boundaries, and the distribution of political power, which remains overwhelmingly concentrated in Shiite hands. This virtually assures that dangerous levels of sectarian tension will continue, and with them the possibility of growing violence. But these are political problems that a much larger contingent of American troops has done nothing to abate over the last eight years. American diplomats, who will remain behind in large numbers, can accomplish as much, or as little, simply by serving as honest brokers.

More importantly, the fear that sectarian violence will rise to the level of civil war has subsided as Iraq's own security forces have improved. It is widely recognized that, as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes, "Iraq's military has the ability to contain internal violence with limited help from" the United States. Iraq's political institutions have also matured, if haltingly. As Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution recently wrote, Iraq's "young democracy has been characterized by a good deal of political brinksmanship to date, but in general they have pulled back from the brink so far."

That leaves Iran, which plainly would like to serve as the kingmaker of a Shiite-ruled Iraq -- and an enfeebled one as well. Iran has succeeded in promoting a sympathetic regime in Baghdad and fostering proxy militias inside the country. But is Iraq really so helpless before Iran, or so bewitched by it? As the Iran expert Ray Takeyh wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, Iran's cynical combination of diplomacy and brutal subversion in Iraq has "done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it." Iraq's jealousy of its sovereignty includes Iran as well as the United States; Prime minister Maliki has been prepared to move against the Shiite militias which serve as Iranian proxies. He did so, forcefully, in Basra in the summer of 2008.

Iran's radical ideology, its regional ambitions, and its drive to gain at least the capacity to produce nuclear weapons make it a clear threat both to its neighbors and to the United States. And Iran's leaders certainly see themselves as the chief beneficiaries of American withdrawal from the region. But Iran is not 10 feet tall. It has been weakened by an increasingly bitter internal power struggle; Syria, its great ally in the region, has plunged into chaos; and its maladroit diplomacy has alienated Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two of its chief rivals for regional supremacy, to whom the Iraqis may increasingly turn for support. The United States thus might be best served not by confrontation, but rather by some combination of patient containment of Iran and respectful attention to the needs of Iraq. Once having made good on its promise to withdraw from Iraq, the United States might even be able to return with the same sort of program of military training and assistance that it has established with other Middle East allies.

There is something fishy about the right-wing obsession with the Iranian threat to Iraq. Today's sabre-rattlers are, of course, the same folk who urged President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, and to prevent Saddam from joining forces with the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda. None of the hawks warned then that toppling Saddam could embolden Iran, and yet Iran has turned out to be the greatest beneficiary of that massively botched undertaking. Now the war's biggest boosters are blaming Obama for a problem created by Bush, and magnifying Obama's alleged failure with whatever rhetorical tools may be available. It's a switcheroo of breathtaking proportions.

The dire warnings over Iran are part of a larger pattern. Obama came to office under suspicion that he would be "soft on terrorism." But the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the absence of terrorist attacks on American soil, and the administration's willingness to leave intact much of Bush's counterterrorism architecture have armored Obama against those claims. The exhaustion of the American people with ambitious foreign undertakings has likewise taken the sting out of attacks on his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In order to demonstrate the president's supposed fecklessness -- and perhaps also in order to turn the tide in the growing debate over cutting the defense budget -- critics on the right have had to look elsewhere: to the threat from aggressive autocratic states, chiefly China, Russia, and Iran. Obama, they claim, is coddling America's enemies. Those countries, and a few others, certainly are our competitors and rivals, and perhaps even our enemies. But they are not our equals, and it does not serve our interests to exaggerate the danger they represent.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images