Allison Kaplan Summer translates an Obama interview with the Israeli news source Ynet that is due to appear on Friday. Asked how he would deal with the threat of Iran and whether he would support military action if diplomacy fails, this was Obama’s answer:
I don’t believe that diplomacy alone will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I believe that we will require our national strength in order to achieve this important goal. The biggest threat to Israel today comes from Iran, where there is a radical government that is continuing its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and continues to support terror across the region. President Ahmedinejad continues to deny the Holocaust and call for Israel destruction, and it is impossible to relate to his threats to destroy Israel as mere rhetoric. My mission when I am president will be to eliminate that threat. The time has come to talk directly to the Iranians in order to arrive at an end to their support for terror and an end to the creation of nuclear weapons. I believe that we need to offer Iran improved relations with the international community. If they do not respond to that, we must continue to intensify the sanctions.
Granted, the topic of Iran is a conundrum for most politicians. No one has what I would consider a good solution—and that’s mainly because there is none. Here Obama tries to give a balanced answer, and allay fears that he is dangerously naive about Iran and far too reliant on “mere talk” in dealing with the country. His first sentence makes that clear.
But what does he actually say after that? I find it exceedingly nebulous. What is “our national strength?” (I hope it’s just a poor translation). Is that some sort of code word for military action, or at least military threat? And if he thinks that talking with the Iranians, and offering them improved relations with the international community, will bring “an end to their support for terror and an end to the creation of nuclear weapons,” I believe he has another think coming.
And sanctions? Iran is not a country especially likely to be affected by them, for a number of reasons delineated here. And here’s a more recent article describing the probable futility of such efforts. It’s unfortunately a matter of too little, too late, and with too little support from the world at large.
Sanctions are an effective tool only under certain very limited conditions. As even the left/liberal Israeli paper Haaretz points out, the sanctions on Iran presently being considered by the international community have a chance of being imposed only because they are so very weak. There are too many players who feel it is in their best interests to keep them that way.
Even under the limited conditions in which sanctions have been successful in the past (and that includes the strong support of the entire international community involved, and the provocation of an unequivocal offense committed by the country being punished—neither of which are present with Iran), they tend to take a long time to work. The Haaretz editorial points out that most of the international community believes there’s no rush with Iran, and the 2007 US intelligence report stating that Iran had suspended its program in 2003 solidified this idea, although Israel strongly disagrees. The Haaretz editors write:
Since the publication of the intelligence assessment, and the gleeful reactions to it in Tehran, they have come to their senses in Washington and are trying to state things precisely. In appearances in Congress and in the media this month, it has been stressed repeatedly that the important dimensions are in fact the other two of the three: the production of fissionable material and the development of ground-to-ground missiles that are intended to carry the warhead.
The Haaretz editors are pessimistic about the chances of sanctions succeeding against Iran no matter who is elected US President. But there’s no question that Iran is watching the campaign with interest.
Obama’s rhetoric is designed to assure supporters of Israel that he is not soft on Iran, and that he isn’t naive enough to think that diplomacy alone will solve the situation. But by invoking intensification of sanctions as the answer (the only answer?), he shows naivete about the inherent difficulties and limitations of that approach. He is so intent to avoid saber-rattling that his words appear to eliminate any military threat whatsoever.
In contrast, McCain understands the the time-honored principle of the big stick. He also has the added benefit of a personal history that conveys an inherent “warrior” message; the big stick is assumed to always be at the ready with McCain. A recent Spiegel interview with McCain (see also Part I) contains his message to the Iranian leaders:
SPIEGEL: Would you like to see Germany reduce trade with Iran?
McCain: I think we have to punish Iran to force them to abandon their current course.
SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to talk to people like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
McCain: As long as Iran continues to announce its dedication to making the state of Israel extinct and as long as the country continues to pursue the use of nuclear weapons, I will continue to say that is not an acceptable situation. I will work with other democracies in order to find incentives and punishments for the Iranians.
SPIEGEL: Is war a legitimate instrument of politics?
McCain: Every nation has the right to defend itself. That is a fundamental right.
SPIEGEL: This reminds us of your biography….
Note the different emphasis. Although we can assume that Obama’s interview with Ynet represents his strongest statement on the subject of Iran, it differs greatly from McCain’s in both its emphasis and its force.
The distinction is far from trivial. It reflects a difference in philosophy about vital matters: the deterability of the mullahs and their ultimate intent, the effectiveness of diplomacy in dealing with such a regime, the ability of the nations of the world to agree on the threat and act together to counter it, and the conditions under which force should be used or even mentioned. In these respects, it appears that Obama and McCain live in different universes.