Reuters, covering Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks about diplomatic efforts with Iran yesterday, concludes that military force still retains a prominent place on the table of options should success prove elusive. “While U.S. officials have long held out that threat,” the news outlet’s reporters write, “Kerry’s comments appeared to indicate the Obama administration would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks fail.” I’m not sure how they gathered that from Kerry saying “I happen to believe as a matter of leadership, and I learnt this pretty hard from Vietnam, before you send young people to war you ought to find out if there is a better alternative.” I doubt Kerry’s intention was to emphasize the possible bombing of Iran as war is the last thing the Obama administration wants. Indeed, if Kerry was driving at that it would fly in the face of a recent statement by White House Spokesman Jay Carney.
Asked at a press briefing last week if the administration still thinks a final deal has a good chance of being reached, in the course of his answer Carney revealingly replied that military strike “can’t be a first option.” Although Carney duly insisted beforehand that “Resolving this issue through the use of military force has to be something that we obviously never take off the table,” the spokesman is engaging in formality because the administration knows very well they can’t bomb away the problem. It seems the administration is beginning to slink away from the military option. I knew this would have to happen and that, as diplomacy rolls on, more and more policymakers will similarly distance themselves from all talk of war. Revving up the bandwagon that a majority of Washington will be hopping on is former General Wesley Clark and Joe Reeder, a former U.S. Army undersecretary.
Clark and Reeder cautiously argue against trumpeting the military option now, writing that the demand for it in the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill is “seriously ill-timed” and that “for the sake of our troops, overt threats before concluding what appears to be earnest, ongoing negotiations is unwise.” So far their approach mirrors Carney’s—have qualms about the military option but don’t call for scrapping it–but they go a step further in their earnestness for diplomacy. They tacitly warn Congress against any thoughts of sabotage when they entreat “each member of the House and Senate to lend strong support for a negotiated solution and to permit the ongoing negotiations to proceed in an environment conducive to success.” Yes, they’re aware Congress has a Constitutional role to play in the negotiations but the legislators need to quit the hawkish mischief and “stand united in support of administration’s efforts” even if that diplomacy means a final deal that isn’t quite to Congress’ liking.
But “so what?” some Iran doves might object. If diplomacy fails, whether Congress mucks things up or not, everyone presently praising the merits of diplomacy will just clamor for war then. Ah, but by that point it will be too late. Once the promoters of diplomacy latch on to Clark and Reeder’s position of delaying talk of the military option they might as well be arguing against ever mentioning it. After diplomacy is finished and Iran proves to the international community the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by answering questions about “possible military dimensions” but leaves the U.S with lingering suspicions, it will be all but impossible to launch strikes. Maintaining a hostile posture towards an Iran that has received a clean bill of health would demonstrate to the world that the U.S. wasn’t interested in nuclear proliferation but in regime change. The tables would then be turned as the world firmly takes Iran’s side and spurns the U.S.
Okay, but what if Iran winds up reneging? Will the world demand military action then? No–the whole point of the final deal is to create a sufficient window of time between a greenlight from Supreme Leader Khameini and the debut of an Iranian nuke so the West will have time either to execute a containment strategy or re-engage in diplomacy to dissuade Iran from going all the way. But Iran would find an advantage here and extract many concessions by occasionally announcing the go-ahead and then stopping once their demands are met. The West will recognize this and won’t want to be boxed in paying ransom. How to escape from this bind? Reach détente with Iran, of course.
So, glancing ahead, the military option definitely will not be as on the table as everyone has previously thought. Who knows, the politicos may even piecemeal concede that it isn’t on the table at all. It’s not like they haven’t figured out years ago that war with Iran is a laughably bad idea and will never happen because shutting down Iran’s nuclear program would require regime change and occupation. In the meantime, however, Clark and Reeder have set the template that Iran doves will use to easily triumph over the Iran hawks who also don’t want an insane war but who do want to score political points against President Obama’s foreign policy during their midterm campaigns.