Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former Middle East adviser, is pointedly sitting out this election. He has, however, taken to the pages of the New York Times to try, from the outside now, to straighten out the president’s Iran policy.
What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. He does not call the president’s Iran policy a “success,” nor does he claim that sanctions have slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons policy. In fact he points to a critical division between the United States and Israel: “The words of Israeli leaders are signaling not just increasing impatience with the pace of diplomacy but also Israel’s growing readiness to act militarily on its own against Iranian nuclear facilities. Although the United States and Israel share the same objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, the two differ on the point at which it may become necessary to act militarily to forestall the Iranian nuclear advance.”
It is noteworthy how defensive is the Obama administration, according to Ross, about how military action would be regarded by the “international community.” He writes:
Preserving Iran’s isolation in the event of a military strike will require denying Iran the ability to present itself as the victim.
In other words, before a military strike, it is essential to demonstrate that Iran was not prepared to accept a civil nuclear power capability with the kind of limitations that would prevent it from being able to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.
Good grief. Does he and the administration believe that even if we did all that, Russia, China and others would not object to military action? More to the point: What difference does it matter?
But you’ll notice that Ross is now arguing that the administration “must put an endgame proposal on the table that would allow Iran to have civil nuclear power but with restrictions that would preclude it from having a breakout nuclear capability — the ability to weaponize its nuclear program rapidly at a time of Tehran’s choosing. Making such a proposal would clarify whether a genuine deal was possible and would convey to Israel that the American approach to negotiations was not open-ended.”
Many foreign policy experts find that quite disturbing. Former ambassador to the United Nations (and an advisor to the Romney campaign) John Bolton finds the idea untenable. He emails, “Iran has demonstrated by decades of behavior that the mullahs cannot be trusted with any nuclear program.”
A Middle East hand tells me that “it would not be an end game, but merely a proposal that immediately became the target of Iranian and Russian efforts to weaken it and get a better deal for Iran.”
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me that the United States has “monkeyed around long enough with Iran’s ‘civilian’ nuclear program. We’re long past the point of talking about this program as anything other than illicit. The program must be disassembled (if not destroyed). If Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains in place, it opens the door for doubt among Israel and Iran’s uneasy regional Arab neighbors that the weapons program could ramp back up quickly. This could easily lead to renewed crises.” He also notes the impact on other countries in the region: “Additionally, if the Iranian nuclear infrastructure remains, it would be a signal to the surrounding countries that it would be ok to continue to pursue their own nuclear programs — which they would also insist are being used for non-threatening purposes (wink, wink). In other words, we would soon witness the birth of a nuclear Middle East.”
Mitt Romney, it should be noted, told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month: “Negotiations must secure full and unhindered access for inspections. As it is, the Iranian regime claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes. This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period.”
Ross also makes some suggestions that he thinks would reassure the Israelis and make our military threat credible: “America should begin discussions with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (the so called P5+1) about a ‘day after’ strategy in the event that diplomacy fails and force is used. . . . [S]enior American officials should ask Israeli leaders if there are military capabilities we could provide them with — like additional bunker-busting bombs, tankers for refueling aircraft and targeting information — that would extend the clock for them. And finally, the White House should ask . . . [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu what sort of support he would need from the United States if he chose to use force — for example, resupply of weapons, munitions, spare parts, military and diplomatic backing, and help in terms of dealing with unexpected contingencies. The United States should be prepared to make firm commitments in all these areas now in return for Israel’s agreement to postpone any attack until next year .”
All of these moves seem appropriate, but why hasn’t the administration done so? Ross ends his piece with a tantalizing hint that “some may argue that these actions will make a military strike more likely next year.” Does that include Obama? The president’s obvious wariness about ever using military force suggests the biggest confidence-building measure that would ease Israelis’ concern — and cause alarm in Tehran — would be a new president who isn’t about to let Iran keep enriching nuclear material.