Only by framing a nuclear-armed Iran as an impermissible threat to the national interests of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf can President Obama bridge this gap between Israeli creed and need. He must convince Israel, Iran, Russia and even Saudi Arabia that the U.S. military option is credible and effective.
A gesture directly from Obama could do it. The U.S. president should visit Israel and tell its leadership — and, more important, its people — that preventing a nuclear Iran is a U.S. interest, and if we have to resort to military action, we will. This message, delivered by the president of the United States to the Israeli Knesset, would be far more effective than U.S. officials’ attempts to convey the same sentiment behind closed doors. The administration should also take five immediate steps to convince allies and adversaries alike that military action is real, imminent and doable — which are key to making it less likely.
First, Obama should notify the U.S. Congress in writing that he reserves the right to use military force to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a military nuclear capability. This would show the president’s resolve, and congressional support for such a measure is likely to be strong. Forty-four senators signed a bipartisan letter to Obama in June, urging him to “reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time” and focus instead on sanctions and “making clear that a credible military option exists.”
Second, Washington should signal its intentions via a heightened U.S. military presence in the gulf, military exercises with Middle East allies and missile defense deployment in the region. Media coverage of these actions should be encouraged.
Third, Washington should provide advanced military technology and intelligence to strengthen Israel’s military capabilities and extend the window in which Israel can mortally wound Iran’s program. This support would be contingent on Israeli pledges to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work.
Fourth, U.S. officials should speak publicly about the dangers of possible Iranian nuclear reconstitution in the wake of a military strike. Perhaps the most cogent argument against a unilateral Israeli strike is that it would quickly lead to the disintegration of Western sanctions. Without the inhibitions of a sanctions regime, Iran could quickly reconstitute its nuclear program — this time bunkered entirely underground to protect against aerial strikes. If Iran sees military action by Israel or the West as an absolute end to its nuclear ambitions, it will be more reluctant to risk things.
Fifth, Obama should publicly commit to the security of U.S. allies in the gulf. This would reassure jittery friends in the region and credibly anchor the U.S. last-resort military option to three powerful interests: U.S. national security, Israeli security and the security of allied states.
Israel cannot afford to outsource its security to another country. But if the United States wants Israel to give sanctions and diplomacy more time, Israelis must know that they will not be left high and dry if these options fail. Ironically, the best assurance the U.S. president can give Israel is a commitment to, if all else fails, resort to military action to protect critical U.S interests. But time is running out to make this commitment credible to the people of the United States, Israel and Iran. As the adage goes, if you want peace, prepare (credibly) for war.