The most undercovered story in Washington is how President Obama, under the influence of election-year politics, is letting America drift toward war with Iran. This story is the unseen but ominous backdrop to next week's Moscow round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The basic story line, pretty well known inside the beltway, is simple: There are things Obama could do to greatly increase the chances of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, but he seems to have decided that doing them would bring political blowback that would reduce his chances of re-election.
The good news is that Obama's calculation may be wrong. The blowback he fears--largely from Bibi Netanyahu, AIPAC, and other "pro-Israel" voices--is probably less forbidding than he assumes. And the political upside of successful statesmanship may be greater than he realizes.
But suppose Obama's right about the politics. It's still a little scandalous that he's imperiling peace and America's security in order to increase his chances of re-election by 1.5 percent, or whatever the imagined number is. And it's even more scandalous how unscandalous this is, how people throughout the Washington establishment--in government, in NGOs, in journalism--are so inured to the corruption of policy by politics that almost nobody bothers to complain about it even when it could lead to war.
The administration's nervousness about deviating from the perceived wishes of the "pro-Israel" community has been evident throughout these negotiations. Before the most recent round of talks--in Baghdad last month--Vice President Biden and other administration officials met with 70 Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to reporting by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, administration officials "emphasized that they will be steadfast in upholding one key Israeli demand: That sanctions not be sacrificed to the negotiating process."
Sure enough, in Baghdad the "P5+1"--the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, a group whose de facto leader is America--offered Iran no significant relief from sanctions, even in exchange for Iranian concessions that would have moved the world further away from war.
Those concessions would have included Iran's ceasing production of uranium enriched to 20-percent levels. This uranium is a ways from the 90-percent-enriched uranium that is weapons grade--and, anyway, having weapons-grade material is a ways from having a weapon; even if Iran launched a headlong effort to get a bomb, and started further enriching the 20-percent enriched uranium, a deliverable weapon would still be at least two years away, according to standard estimates. Still, this 20-percent enriched uranium is significantly closer to weapons grade than the 3.5-percent enriched uranium, suitable for civilian energy use, that Iran otherwise produces. So America's (and P5+1's) near-term goal is to get Iran to quit producing the 20-percent uranium and surrender its existing stockpile of such uranium. (This 20-percent uranium has medical uses, but Iran could be given the functional equivalent in a form not amenable to further enrichment.)
Meir Javedanfar--an Israeli academic of Iranian descent who is quite anti-regime and is committed to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands--expressed puzzlement at P5+1's failure to offer sanctions relief. "Had Iran accepted such an offer, it would have been a breakthrough for the P5+1, as the most sensitive and dangerous part of Iran's enrichment program would have come to a halt," he wrote in The Diplomat. "And had Iran rejected such an offer, it would have isolated itself even more, while justifying the P5+1's dual track of sanctions and diplomacy."
Surely, wrote Javedanfar, who teaches a course on Iranian politics at an Israeli university, our negotiators were aware of the political constraints facing Iranian leader Ali Khamenei: Khamenei needs "a deal that he can sell to his home audience, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," so giving up 20 percent enrichment without any sanctions relief would have been "political suicide for him." Given that our "offer" was sure to be rejected, asked Javedanfar, "Why make such an offer in the first place?"
A cynic might say: Because then you get the benefits of appearing to seek a negotiated solution without the political downside of violating AIPAC's negotiating guidelines, which specify that no sanctions relief is to be granted for a deal like this. I'm not quite that cynical; I doubt Obama or his negotiators see themselves as just going through the motions, with no prospect of a deal. But there can be little doubt that they are seriously constrained by concerns about "pro-Israel" opinion.
Indeed, after the Baghdad talks ended, Wendy Sherman, head of the American delegation, went to Tel Aviv before returning to Washington. As an anonymous American official explained to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "We updated the Israelis in detail before we updated our own government." The official also summarized the upshot of the personally delivered message: "There are no gaps between the U.S. and Israel in anything related to talks between Iran and the six world powers over the future of Iran's nuclear program."
If that's true, then things look grim. And the problem goes beyond Israeli views on sanctions relief. Netanyahu's position is that, at the end of the day, Iran can't be allowed to enrich uranium even to the sub-5-percent levels used in civilian energy programs--even though this is allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is done by some other Treaty members. For the U.S. to adopt this position would pretty much end the possibility of a long-term, comprehensive deal that could settle this problem once and for all. For Iran, an acknowledged right to enrich uranium is a matter of great national pride and for political reasons has to be part of any final deal.
Yet in the current political climate, the administration can't seem to bring itself to reaffirm this position--a position already taken by its Secretary of State while testifying before Congress! And this matters even in the short term, because Iran, before suspending its 20 percent enrichment, would like some reassurance that in the long run it can hope for a deal that guarantees its right to do low-level enrichment.
There are two ways the administration's current negotiating position--virtual paralysis induced by fear of political blowback--could lead to war.
First, an autumn military strike by Israel could draw the U.S. into war with Iran. I'm generally skeptical of stories about how Israel is going to bomb Iran any moment now. But the chances of an Israeli strike aren't zero, and the time when they'd be furthest from zero is before the presidential election; Netanyahu knows that a pre-election Obama would be more inclined than a post-election Obama to provide uncomplaining and robust military support in the wake of an Israeli strike.
But there's one thing that would make it hard for Netanyahu to stage an October surprise: substantial progress in negotiations with Iran. If Iran has just surrendered the uranium that is closest to weapons grade, and has quit making more of it, and the international community is hailing this progress toward a peaceful and comprehensive solution of the Iran problem, it becomes very hard for Netanyahu to ruin everyone's day with a war.
So make no mistake about it: If Obama fails to nail down a deal on 20 percent enrichment--which he could probably do at the upcoming Moscow talks if he gave negotiators the green light--he will be increasing the chances of war.
The other thing--aside from successful negotiations--that could reduce the chance of an October surprise is if polls show that Mitt Romney is likely to be the next president. Netanyahu would rather America do the bombing, and he has much more confidence in Romney's belligerence than in Obama's. But even in this scenario, Obama has the power to reduce the chances of war. Romney's seeming gusto for bombing Iran may wane once he actually looks war in the eye, and the more diplomatic progress that's been made before he takes office, the easier it will be for him to resist warmongers at home and abroad. In the extreme case--if Obama reached a more thoroughgoing deal that included things like a new, more intrusive inspections regime--then it might be hard for Romney to bomb Iran even if he wanted to.
In short, though it's of course impossible to anticipate Iran's reaction to serious negotiations, Obama probably has the power to reduce the chances of war with Iran in both the short run and the long run. So why doesn't he try? Because, as usual in life, there is a rationale for not doing the right thing. Obama can tell himself that, since Romney is indeed more likely to bomb than he is, the greatest anti-war activity of all is to get re-elected.
But is it really so clear that diplomatic progress would hurt Obama's chances of re-election? Suppose that as the election approached, Iran was ending its 20-percent enrichment, handing over its existing supply of 20-percent enriched uranium, doing various other confidence-building things, and a comprehensive deal was now imaginable. Wouldn't most Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, be glad that both the threat of war and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran were receding?
Apparently Obama worries that any deal with Iran will be depicted by his opponents as appeasement. And of course it will. But won't the groups who try to scare people about Obama and Iran be trying to scare them about Obama and Iran regardless of what happens with negotiations? In fact, they're already doing it. Witness this brand new 30-second anti-Obama scare-ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel.
Note that the ad says "Iran has enough fuel for five nuclear bombs," even though Iran has no weapons-grade material at all, and getting the material they do have to a point where they could create five crude explosive devices would take us well into the next president's term (to say nothing of the additional year or more it would take to make the bombs deliverable). If the Emergency Committee for Israel is this willing to mislead people, and this determined to attack Obama on the Iran front regardless of how hard he tries to demonstrate his alignment with Israel and with AIPAC, what is the point of this excruciatingly risk-averse strategy? Given that he'll face a propaganda onslaught whether or not he does an Iran deal, wouldn't he be better off at least having a counter-attack ready--being able to say that Iran has now surrendered the uranium that was a primary source of our alarm and has quit producing this kind of uranium?
No doubt the various Washington players who are abetting Obama's sabotaging of his own negotiations do so with good intentions. I'm sure people at AIPAC, like the rest of us, think they're doing God's work. (And I'm certainly not saying that everyone in the amorphous thing known as "the Israel lobby" wants war; some hope for regime change through internal collapse, and some hope for other scenarios.) Similarly, the "progressive" establishment that is supporting the administration's stance toward Iran genuinely believes that this stance will help Obama get re-elected, and that Obama's re-election is vitally important.
I'm all for getting Obama re-elected. But I don't share the now-reflexive assumption that the Israel lobby is an awesome force that renders resistance futile. (Only last week the vaunted AIPAC machine faltered, as a congressional candidate strongly opposed by AIPAC defeated the AIPAC-approved candidate.) And I refuse to believe that progressives can't find a way to reconcile real, tangible progress on the peace and security front with electoral success. In any event, what we're seeing now--a grim, uncreative, and slightly pathetic submission to the winds of war--is not what I expected from the man who got people chanting, "Yes, we can."