http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000087 ... TopOpinion
Updated August 16, 2012, 6:43 p.m. ET
What Obama Isn't Saying About Iran
The sanctions aren't 'crippling,' Tehran isn't isolated, and there aren't any tough American red lines.
By DAVID FEITH
The United States doesn't want Israel taking military action against Iran's nuclear program, and top officials have been traveling to Jerusalem this summer to make their case in person. Any attack would be dangerous and premature, they say, because Iran is suffering under crippling sanctions, the world is united against Tehran as never before, and all options remain on the table.
The problem is that every one of these points is false or misleading.
Start with sanctions. After years, they've proved troublesome, not crippling. Yes, the Iranian rial has lost half its value in 12 months. Oil exports are down by about half, too. And Tehran admits that inflation is above 20%, with unemployment above 13%. Yet this isn't an economy in freefall. The volume of oil exports is stabilizing, and the government has an estimated $60 billion to $100 billion in foreign currency reserves.
The unfortunate reality is that sanctions are generally a limited tool—and the Obama administration has made these sanctions even more limited. When Congress wanted to sanction Iran's central bank last year, the administration initially opposed the effort. The Senate endorsed it anyway, on a 100-0 vote, so the administration focused on getting last-minute loopholes written into the law.
One of them gave the State Department the authority to exempt from sanctions any country that it determined had "significantly reduced" its imports of Iranian oil. No one paid much attention at the time, but eight months later we know the loophole's effect: All of Iran's major oil-trading partners—20 of them—received exemptions from U.S. sanctions.
The Obama administration says all countries with exemptions earned them. But here again the rhetoric is slippery. India was exempted for pledging to cut its Iran imports by only 11%. Japan cut by 22%. Then there's China, which cut 25% overall from January to May but increased its take of Iran oil by 35% in the final two months, just before earning its exemption.
President Obama said in March that "the world is as united as we've ever seen it around the need for Iran to take a different path on its nuclear program." Yet China, India, Japan and others that continue to do big business with Tehran aren't focused on squeezing Iran's economy. They're focused on such things as getting around banking restrictions by bartering rice and steel for oil. Whether they're motivated by trade imperatives, nonaligned politics or something else, these countries show that Iran is by no means as "isolated" as Mr. Obama asserts.
There's another problem with the claim about a united front. The U.S. and Israeli governments may be the world's most important parties on this issue, but they disagree on a basic question: Is the goal to prevent Iran from "developing a nuclear weapon," as Mr. Obama says, or to prevent Iran from "possessing nuclear-weapons capability," as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu puts it? This difference matters.
The Israelis believe that a nuclear-capable Iran—one with sufficient fissile material and weapons technology to be able to build a bomb in a few weeks—is as threatening to the international order as an Iran with an actual weapon. Either circumstance, Israel fears, would allow the mullahs to carry out future adventurism under the protection of a credible nuclear deterrent. Any response to Hezbollah terrorism or to the murder of diplomats at Washington restaurants would have to consider that Tehran could retaliate with nukes.
This helps explain why a 2010 U.S. sanctions law committed Washington to doing "everything possible . . . to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." But you wouldn't know that from the Obama administration. Instead, we get Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledging that America "will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period."
That sounds tough and unequivocal, but it says nothing about an Iranian nuclear capability. As such, it suggests to Iran's mullahs that as long as they don't parade a bomb through downtown Tehran, they can expand their nuclear program without crossing any American red lines. That's good if the priority is to avoid confrontation in the next few months; it's bad if you want to stop Iran from ever wielding a nuclear deterrent.
Administration officials argue that their nuclear-weapon red line is prudent. For one, they say, the concept of nuclear capability is vague. Moreover, as Mr. Obama said in March, if Iran really pushes to go nuclear "we will know that they are making that attempt." But that confidence in U.S. intelligence on Iranian enrichment sites, weaponization experts and the like may be misplaced.
In the Cold War, Stalin's Soviet Union first tested a nuclear device in 1949, four years before U.S. intelligence was expecting it. Mao's China did so in 1964, months earlier than anticipated. U.S. intelligence also underestimated Saddam Hussein's nuclear program before 1991, was surprised by India's nuclear tests in 1998, and overestimated Saddam's arsenal before 2003.
Regarding Iran, significant nuclear facilities went undetected for a decade until exposed by a dissident group in 2002. Now every six or 12 months we read that, as the New York Times put it in February 2009, "Iran Has More Enriched Uranium Than Thought." For all the achievements of U.S. intelligence, few include pinpointing the progress of shadowy weapons programs.
Which leaves the administration's bottom line: All options remain on the table. Mr. Obama has invested much political capital in this assurance.
Yet he's also deeply invested in the idea that "the tide of war is receding"—which, as Syria burns and Iraq and Afghanistan backslide, seems increasingly to mean only that U.S. military force is receding.
Would this president, so dedicated to multilateralism (except where targeting al Qaeda is concerned), launch a major military campaign against Iran even without Russian and Chinese support at the U.N.? Do Iran's leaders think he would? Or have they noticed that American officials often repeat the "all-options-on-the-table" mantra as mere throat clearing before they list all the reasons why attacking Iran is a terrifying prospect?
Those reasons are plain to see. An attack could lead to a major loss of life, to regional war, to Iranians rallying around their regime, to global economic pain. And it could fail.
But the question that counts is whether these risks outweigh the risks of a nuclear-capable Iran. That's a hard question for any democratic government and its citizens to grapple with. The Obama administration's rhetorical snow job only makes it harder.
Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.