Monday, March 4, 2013

Is Iran Listening to Biden’s Threat?

by Jonathan S. Tobin

The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.

The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

The “if we will be forced to use force” phrasing can, of course, be represented as an empty promise or just a cheap political point being made on the eve of the president’s trip to Israel. The U.S. decision to go along with the West’s decision to make concessions to Iran at the most recent P5+1 talks last week is hardly indicative of strength or resolve. Yet by spelling out a scenario in which, as the vice president said, “God forbid” the Iranians don’t give in on their nuclear ambition, the administration has raised the possibility of using force against Iran from the purely speculative to a rational scenario.

Hagel’s confirmation places a man who was an opponent of sanctions–let alone the use of force–against Iran in a position as a senior advisor to the president. That may have encouraged the Iranians to think that Obama doesn’t mean what he says about never allowing them to gain nuclear capability. But by sketching out a scenario in which four years of feckless engagement and a reliance on failed diplomacy and often unenforced sanctions was justified as a necessary preliminary to a last resort attack on Iran, Biden has turned up the heat on the Iranians and laid the foundation for public support for another Middle East conflict. If, as the New York Times reports today, Biden is going to play an outsized role in foreign policy during the president’s second term, his AIPAC speech may be looked back on as a moment when that claim was validated.

It is certainly possible to doubt Obama’s word–or Biden’s–on this subject. The Iranians may wise up and accept a weak offer from the P5+1 group that will defuse the crisis and allow them to eventually go nuclear anyway in the same manner that their North Korean allies did after signing nuclear agreements with the West. But if they continue, as they have for the last decade, counting on their ability to run out the clock with the U.S. via diplomatic delays and deceptions, Biden offered some hope that this administration might actually be considering taking action to end this farce before an inevitable announcement of an Iranian bomb. It must be hoped that Tehran was listening and drawing the appropriate conclusions about the need to abandon their nuclear gambit before American threats become reality.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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