Speaking to the press yesterday, President Obama laid out a challenge for the many conservative and Republican critics of the new international diplomatic framework limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The basic gist of it was: put up or shut up. “I'm hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about ‘This is a bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States,’” he said. “What I haven't heard is: what is your preferred alternative?”
He has a point about the rhetoric: ever since it was first announced that Iran and the P5+1 countries were entering into negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities, the whole endeavor has been swaddled in histrionic denunciations from critics of diplomatic outreach. Comparisons to the 1938 Munich Pact have become routine, as have grim invocations of a coming nuclear war. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has specialized in doing both at the same time. “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolph Hitler,” he complained back in April, warning that “we all know is going to end with a mushroom cloud somewhere near Tehran.” Yesterday Kirk reprised the theme, saying that Obama “is doing this because of his very poor understanding of the history of what happened to Neville Chamberlain, when Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler.”
But Obama isn’t quite correct when he says that critics of the deal haven’t laid out a preferred alternative. What most of his critics seem to favor is some ill-defined sanctions regime that, if pursued enthusiastically, will force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, as well as its support for terrorist organizations and intentions to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Obama's most prominent Iran critic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, endorsed this idea when he spoke with NPR yesterday morning:
NETANYAHU: I think you can keep them from having a bomb. We've kept them from having a bomb for decades. And it's because of a very tough stance that we've taken, the tough fighting sanctions that were installed that in fact made them stop. Iran stopped twice - twice - its nuclear program - once in 2003 when they thought there would be an American action following the American intervention in Iraq. It took them about a year to figure out that that wasn't likely, so they continued with building their nuclear program. Second time is 2012 when fighting sanctions on the banking systems on their petrochemical industry and elsewhere were enforced. And since then, Iran barely added - didn't add any centrifuges, went down from the enriched uranium - remember the red line that I placed at the U.N.?
So Netanyahu thinks sanctions will work. Wait… Netanyahu thinks sanctions will work? That’s a bit convenient, given that Netanyahu devoted much of 2012 and 2013 warning that those very same sanctions were not going to work, and that the need for military action was growing. The U.S. and the international community ratcheted up economic constraints on Iran in early 2012, and the Israeli prime minister spent the ensuing months warning that Iran wasn’t going to stop developing nuclear weapons. “Sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” he said in July 2012. “Right now, the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” Netanyahu said in August 2012.
The following month, he gave his celebrated “red line” speech at the U.N. – the same speech he referenced on NPR when arguing that sanctions work. The position he laid out in that speech? Sanctions don’t work: “It's had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran's nuclear program either.”
Netanyahu’s newfound faith in sanctions is shared by a number of Republican presidential candidates who promise to withdraw from the diplomatic framework and unilaterally impose “crippling” sanctions should they win the White House. They want to go back to the status quo of sanctions and isolation that existed for several years before the international community began its diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. It’s doubtful they’d be able to do that, and even if they could, there’s no reason to think they’d be successful. As Dafna Linzer writes, Iran spent 13 years being sanctioned and threatened, and in that time they ”gained significant expertise in precision engineering, centrifuge construction, enrichment and research and development.” What's the alternative when sanctions fail? Bombs, missiles, and drones.
By challenging political actors like Netanyahu and congressional Republicans to offer an alternative to diplomacy, Obama is sending the message that their preferred alternative is war. They’ll bristle at the implication and turn it around on Obama because the idea of another war in the Middle East is politically toxic, but that is, in effect, what they’re pushing for by using apocalyptic rhetoric to denounce diplomacy while calling for a return to sanctions and bellicose posturing.