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Why Won’t Obama Speak Frankly About Iran?

The world is nearing the point where it is going to have to make some difficult decisions about how to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—among them, a decision about whether to use military force. Given Iran’s deep hostility to the United States and Israel, as well as its history of sponsoring terrorism, the importance of denying Iran a nuclear weapon cannot be overstated.

But, while President Obama says he believes Iran must be denied the bomb, his rhetoric on the subject has been curiously circumscribed. He has not made a major speech explaining to the American and global public why an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a threat to the United States or to the countries of the Middle East. He has not used his bully pulpit to detail the content of Iran’s genocidal threats to Israel. He has not explained why an Iranian bomb would doom his hopes for preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries. Even as he says things like “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he has not explained to the country why a policy of containment and deterrence—which worked in the case of the Soviet Union—is deeply problematic in the case of Iran.

Consider his comments about Iran during his recent State of the Union:

And we will safeguard America’s own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests. Look at Iran. Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one. The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.
Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.
But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

First, it is not true that the world “stands as one” regarding stopping Iran’s progress towards the bomb. For instance, while China supports some form of economic sanctions, it also continues to buy a great deal of oil from the country. So while the world may “stand as one” in wishing that Iran does not get the bomb, there is no unified position on how to translate this wish into reality.

Second, Obama asserts his determination to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and says he “will take no options off the table.” When a President speaks about the possibility of using military force in a preemptive strike to prevent another country from attaining nuclear weapons—for this is what taking no options off the table means—norms of democratic legitimacy require that he explain in that moment to that huge audience why he would even consider such a thing. Yet Obama said nothing about why the military option must remain on the table. His refusal to do so raises doubts about how serious he is.

Third, these doubts are enhanced by the next sentence regarding the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the issue. Yes, of course, that would be preferable; but the President does not explain why he thinks such a course is likely.

Finally, the entire passage, with its insistence that the world is united and that “the regime is more isolated than ever before,” makes it sound as if our policy toward Iran is working—when it manifestly is not. As far as we know, and now also in the view of recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons, despite the world’s diplomatic and economic efforts to prevent it from doing so.

There is so much more the President might have said—both in his State of the Union and on other occasions. He might have reminded his audience of the Iranian regime’s ruthless repression of democracy at home, its support for terrorism abroad, and the very specific, oft-repeated incitement to mass murder of Jews that come from the speeches of both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. He might have argued for either leader to be indicted under the incitement clause of the U.N. Genocide Convention. And he might have detailed the ways in which Hezbollah will almost certainly be emboldened by its patron’s nuclear status.

He might also have said that, if Iran goes nuclear, there will likely be an arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and other countries looking to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. He might have explained that, once Iran has the bomb, other small or medium sized countries around the world could well conclude there is little price to be paid for developing nuclear weapons. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty would be a dead letter.

The President says he wants to take no options off the table. But for three years he has taken the option of his own eloquence off the table. It is long overdue that he put it in play. The reason to do this is not because Iran’s leaders will necessarily respond to such tough language. They have repeatedly made clear that they do not care what the United States says about them. No, the real reason is that part of the role of a U.S. president is to speak frankly and without illusions about the most difficult challenges facing our country and our allies, namely an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons—and to be clear with Americans about the realistic options for dealing with these challenges.

Jeffrey Herf is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author, most recently, of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.