U.S. President Barack Obama, under pressure from Israel and American conservatives to take a harder line on Iran, keeps insisting that "all options are on the table." That's a diplomatic way of saying that the United States is willing to use force to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
To buttress this thinly veiled threat, however, Obama recently took one important option off the table: deterrence. In an interview with the Atlantic, he ruled out "containing" a nuclear Iran in the same way the United States has contained other unfriendly nuclear powers -- by threatening the country with massive retaliation if it attacks us or our allies.
This is a significant -- and needless -- change in U.S. foreign policy. It raises the likelihood of war with Iran, despite Obama's preference for a diplomatic solution. And launching air strikes on Tehran's nuclear facilities would undercut America's ability to play the long game in Iran by abetting a "Persian Spring" that could eventually topple the Islamic Republic.
No sane person wants to see Iran's theocrats get their hands on nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the United States didn't attack the Soviet Union or "Red" China -- far more formidable adversaries -- to keep them from getting the bomb. Later, when India, Pakistan and North Korea barged into the nuclear club, U.S. leaders expressed their displeasure with political and economic sanctions rather than military attacks. And we are safer for it.
So why should Washington now regard Iran's nuclear ambitions as a casus belli? Some say that going nuclear would embolden Iran's rulers to make good on their threats to "wipe Israel off the map." Obama, however, doesn't subscribe to the "crazy mullah" theory -- in the same interview with the Atlantic, he made the case that Iran's leaders "care about the regime's survival" and would make pragmatic decisions to avoid its destruction. Obama's biggest fear is a nuclear arms race breaking out in the world's most volatile region.
In an age of terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism, checking the spread of weapons of mass destruction is a vital U.S. and global interest. But you'd think that, having just extricated the United States from Iraq, this administration would be leery of using nonproliferation as a rationale for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
By taking deterrence off the table, Obama is upping the stakes in this confrontation. He is saying, in effect, that the United States can't live with a nuclear-armed Iran. This may have the tactical effect of turning up the heat on Tehran, but it also paints the United States into a corner. If diplomatic and economic pressures fail to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama will be left with no option but to use force, or see his bluff called and America's credibility shattered.