In a time of widespread unrest and anti-western demonstration in the Arab world, one would have hoped that America’s biggest ally in the region would step forward to try and reinforce our policies and provide a stabilizing influence in a time of relative chaos. That has most assuredly not happened, and this lack of support was on full display during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit this morning on NBC’s Meet The Press. Picking up where he left off a week ago before the incidents at the Libyan consulate in Benghazi and in American outposts all across the Middle East, Netanyahu continued to insist on the urgent need for President Obama to draw a definitive line in the nuclear sand with Iran, the crossing of which would precipitate American military action in the region. In this time of volatility in the region, the Prime Minister felt it was appropriate to dig deep into the George W. Bush school of foreign diplomacy, which consists primarily of describing opposing nations as lunatic evildoers hellbent on the destruction of civilization. At precisely the moment that America needs them to exhibit some sense of tact and even-handedness, Israel has decided to double down on their combative claims and leave America to clean up the diplomatic mess.
More often than not, the interactions between Israel and America are described in context of a relationship, which is fitting given the recent turn those interactions have taken. In his recent appearances and policy declarations, Prime Minister Netanyahu has shown all of the consideration and goodwill of a jealous spouse. Assured by the conviction that America will never leave them, Israel has essentially given up any pretense of coming to the bargaining table and is now actively trying to influence our Presidential elections. Netanyahu may maintain that he has no intention of effecting the election one way or another, but the fact that he has decided to spend his Sunday morning telling David Gregory that Iran is in the red zone for nuclear armament and calling on President Obama to threaten military action says otherwise. It would be like claiming that you had no intention of emptying an office building and then pulling the fire alarm.
This is not to say that Netanyahu’s statements regarding Iran’s nuclear capability are incorrect. The Washington Post recently agreed with the Prime Minister’s claim that Iran is six months away from having 90% of the enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, but pointed out that this simply means that they would only have the capability of building an atomic weapon. Actually constructing the bomb would involve a massive enrichment breakout by Iran that would be easily detectable by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which most experts believe would give the US enough time to respond militarily before enough weapons-grade uranium was produced for a bomb1. However, this is all information that the Obama Administration is perfectly well aware of, and Netanyahu’s use of the talk show bully pulpit to catastrophize these facts to the public is more self-serving that it is productive.
I don’t make much of a secret of my distaste with a good deal of the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions, but I have to say that with regards to Iran, the President has done about as solid a job as I could have hoped for. The oil and trade embargoes have taken an immense toll on the Iranian economy as recent figures on their oil exports and revenues show. This past July, Iranian oil exports had been reduced to 940,000 barrels a day, almost half of what they were exporting the month before and a third of what they were shipping one year ago2. Even more significant is that Iranian oil revenue has been slashed from $9.8 billion in July of 2011 to a mere $2.9 billion at the same time this year. The Iranian economy has been hit hard, as have the Iranian people. Consumer goods have been skyrocketing in price and the Iranian Riyal recently hit an all-time low with 24,000 Riyal being equal to a single American dollar.
Beyond the economic sanctions, Iran is on equally shaky ground when it comes to their strategic position within the Middle East. With the events of the Arab Spring and the diplomatic upheaval that has come with them, Iran has found itself with nary an ally in the entire region. The only nation who they can truly call a friend is Syria, who has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for over a year now and is threatening to devolve into complete chaos any day now. If Bashar Al-Asad’s regime is overthrown in Syria, it will mean almost total isolation for an Iranian government that needs allies now more than ever.
President Obama has stated on numerous occasions that he is vehemently opposed to Iran coming into possession of nuclear weapons and that he will intervene military before that should ever happen. The big point of difference between Obama and Netanyahu is that Obama is not willing to paint himself into a corner that necessitates military action before it is absolutely necessary. The sanctions levied by America and the international community are having their desired effect in the sense that they are decimating the Iranian economy, but they have yet to affect Iranian nuclear policy, with the Iranians continuing on with atomic business as usual. Ever the pragmatist and well of patience, President Obama has decided that it is to America’s benefit to let these sanctions slowly eat away at Iran from the inside rather than call in the cavalry.
After all, we don’t even know for certain that Iran is enriching this uranium for the purpose of producing nuclear weapons. I mean, it seems fairly obvious given their belligerence and outright defiance of the pleas of the international community, but the last time we sent our boys into a Middle Eastern country without definitive proof that they had weapons of mass destruction, it didn’t end so well. America already has its hands full with a never-ending war in Afghanistan and the recent addition of tens of thousands of violent protestors in the streets surrounding every American embassy in the fertile crescent and beyond. The last thing we need is to get into a pissing match with another Islamic state and end up being forced to overextend ourselves again just as we’re winding down the longest armed conflict in US history. Prime Minister Netanyahu can scream fire all he wants to. America’s only coming to Iran when we begin to smell smoke.