The Middle East, with all its hot spots of political unrest, civil war and terrorism, offers many reasons for American policy makers to pass sleepless nights in worry. But the center of all concerns, the most serious threat to American interests and allies, is Iran.
Even the debate about Syria was really a debate about Iran.
A nuclear Iran would be a game-changer for the U.S., Europe, and our allies in the Middle East. (And for Israel, undoubtedly, most of all.) Can the U.S. convince the rulers of Iran to stand down from their aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons? Do we have the means and the will to do so? If the answer is no, the consequences will be devastating.
The need for answers is becoming more urgent as the Iranians get closer and closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. The Institute for Science and International Security reported this summer that Iran will have the “critical capability” to build weapons by mid-2014, just months from now. The Iranians are bringing thousands of new centrifuges on-line at Natanz and Fordow to speed up the time-consuming job of enriching uranium in sufficient quality and quantity for a nuclear weapon. Once they have the elements of such weapon, they may well be able to build it too fast and too secretly for us to respond before it is too late.
The U.S. has three means to influence Iran: diplomacy, economic sanctions and military power.
The Obama administration continues to hold out hope for negotiations; another round of international talks with Iran may begin after the U.N. General Assembly session this month.
Congress remains focused on strong sanctions against Iran. On July 31, the House of Representatives voted 400-20 to pass HR 850, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act. It strengthened and extended sanctions in existing law. As written, it would shut down Iranian oil exports by punishing countries like China and India that still conduct significant trade with Iran. It would also blacklist several new sectors of the Iranian economy, such as its automotive, construction, mining, and engineering industries. The bill provides Iran sanctions with real teeth, if enacted and enforced.
The U.S. has also made some moves toward a stronger military presence in the Persian Gulf and has developed “bunker buster” bombs capable of breaching hardened and deeply buried targets like Iran’s nuclear sites. Those and other steps have increased our ability to use military means as a last resort.
However, the Iranians are not looking at what we can do; they are focused on what they think we will do. If the U.S. is perceived as weak, divided or indecisive, the Iranians will see that as a green light to push forward with their nuclear program.
That is why the stakes in the Syria debate were so high. Unfortunately, President Obama allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime to take the initiative from him. President Obama may think that letting the “red line” question fizzle out gets him out of a political and diplomatic hole (of his own making), but it weakens the U.S. in the eyes of its enemies and its allies. Every time the U.S. makes strong-sounding declarations — on Libya, Egypt and Syria for example — and doesn’t follow up, it weakens us. When the president divides us from our allies — by pressuring Israel about peace talks or disrespecting our allies in Europe — it weakens us. And if we appear weak, Iran will be empowered and emboldened, to our detriment.
There are some steps the president can take to project American strength and credibility in ways the Iranians will understand. For example:
The U.S. must not loosen economic sanctions against Iran on the mere promise of Iran decreasing its enrichment activities. In fact, the president should support the passage of a Senate version of HR 850, sign it into law as quickly as possible and begin enforcing it immediately.
The U.S. should begin supporting the dissidents in Iran and encouraging Iranians citizens to understand and act on the sharp disconnect between their interests and those of the regime.
The U.S. should step up its military readiness with regard to Iran. More importantly, the U.S. must project a credible global military deterrent, so that Iran’s rulers will perceive the costs of pursuing their nuclear ambitions as too high to tolerate. The president and his advisers must speak and act in ways that will rebuild confidence in America’s willingness to defend its own interests.
Regrettably, President Obama has spent the last five years downplaying America’s power and America’s leadership role in the world. The U.S. must have a credible military deterrent, a strong moral voice, and strong alliances to protect our national interests and defend our principles. Iran presents the greatest test of our abilities and our will today. We must meet the challenge firmly and stop Iran’s nuclear program or face decades of instability, terrorism and economic turmoil for us and for our allies.
Matthew Brooks is executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.