How Newt, Mitt, and Rick Are Leading Us to War With Iran

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Today President Obama was all aglow about the new sanctions on Iran announced by the European Union. After hailing this sign of "the unity of the international community," he promised that "the United States will continue to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran."

Surprisingly upbeat for a man who is being led into war by his political opponents! At the risk of dampening his spirits, I recommend he read paragraph fifteen of today's Bill Keller column in The New York Times. I've italicized the key parts:

The point of tough sanctions, of course, is to force Iranians to the bargaining table, where we can do a deal that removes the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran... But the mistrust is so deep, and the election-year pressure to act with manly resolve is so intense, that it's hard to imagine the administration would feel free to accept an overture from Tehran. Anything short of a humiliating, unilateral Iranian climb-down would be portrayed by the armchair warriors as an Obama surrender. Likewise, if Israel does decide to strike out on its own, Bibi Netanyahu knows that candidate Obama will feel immense pressure to go along.

I can hear the armchair warriors (e.g., Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum) responding to Keller now: "Well what's wrong with a humiliating, unilateral Iranian climb-down?" Nothing, except that humiliating unilateral climb-downs tend not to happen in the real world. For all the talk about how sanctions are supposed to bring about a "diplomatic solution," there has been little mention of a basic rule of diplomacy: If you want your demands met, you should give your adversary a face-saving way to meet them. As much as we may dislike Iran's leaders, we're going to have to figure out a way to let them plausibly declare victory to their people if we really want a diplomatic solution.

What are some elements of a deal that would do this? One that is considered very important in Iran, and could be depicted there as a "concession," would be letting it enrich its own uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program. (And as Princeton scholar R. Scott Kemp explains on Keller's blog, this would offer the key benefit of continued international monitoring.) But this is an unpopular option in Israel and on the American right, and I don't expect Gingrich, Romney, or Santorum to let Obama get away with anything that fits that description.

So far as I can tell, the position of the three people who might be the Republican presidential nominee can be summarized as follows: (1) If Iran doesn't meet our demands we must bomb it! (2) We must make demands that are essentially impossible for Iran to meet! The rest, as they say, may be history.

[Update: Some commenters seem to think I'm letting Obama off the hook. So, for the record: Obviously, the president bears responsibility for his policies; he's the country's leader. But the Republican candidates are "leading" us to war--as I put it in the headline--in the sense that they're establishing the political incentive structure that is leading Obama toward war. Do I wish he had enough creativity and courage to successfully defy that incentive structure? Sure. But I don't know that many politicians would. And in any event his recent history doesn't lead me to be optimistic in this regard.]  

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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