War or Deal
President Obama loves his binary approach. He repeats it often. Just two week ago, the president was quite insistent, essentially daring his critics to produce an alternative: I'm hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about “This is a bad deal. This is a historically bad deal… What I haven't heard is what is your preferred alternative?... And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it's resolved through force, through war. Those are -- those are the options.”
Of course, it goes almost without saying, but the president is completely wrong.
We are already at war with Iran. This war started 35 years ago, when Iranian students -- with the backing of the Iranian regime -- invaded and took hostage Americans in our Embassy in Tehran. (The fact that this has not officially been declared is immaterial). This was Iran’s first act of aggression towards the U.S. Since then, Iran has routinely conducted its war against the U.S.: in the 1980s in Lebanon through its proxy Hizb'allah, which killed hundreds of Americans; in Iraq, in the 1990s, through incidents like the attack on the Khobar Towers; in the 2000s, where its explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) killed or wounded thousands of American soldiers; and in 2011, through its plan to bomb a U.S. restaurant in Georgetown in Washington D.C. The person responsible for helping to supply the EFP’s to Iraqi militias, and who oversaw those who planned the Georgetown terrorist plot is Qasem Soleimani, who will receive sanctions relief from the deal struck with Iran. Also to receive sanctions relief is Iranian Ahmad Vahidi, wanted by Interpol and the FBI for his role in numerous international terrorist attacks, including the 1996 Iranian bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
We all understand that the president isn’t referring to ‘war’ in this manner. But this brings up the question -- just what does the president mean when he says ‘war?’ We know he must be focusing on American military actions, because he has always ignored the fact that the Iranians are already constantly attacking, or planning to attack, the U.S. However, there are still a variety of military actions he could be referencing.
The most probable meaning of ‘war’ in Obama’s statement is ‘another Iraqi combat operation and occupation, but this time in Iran.’ President Obama is seemingly obsessed with President Bush, and has long tried to be, and do, the opposite of his predecessor. He has also long railed against the Iraq war of 2003-2011 and brings it up frequently as the epitome of the most disastrous war ever. So much does he dislike the Iraq war that Obama prematurely withdrew American troops in 2011, thereby allowing the al-Qaeda spinoff ISIS to reignite the Iraqi civil war, resulting in thousands of new Iraqi casualties, the disintegration of the Iraqi state, and blowback in the form of new terrorists and foiled attacks on the American home front. So, it seems only logical to assume that this is what President Obama means when he says ‘war.’
It is extremely unlikely that a ‘war’ with Iran would be ‘another Iraqi combat operation and occupation, but this time in Iran.’ There are many kinds of war, or combat operations. Some involve large numbers of ground troops, occupying a foreign nation(s), like we did post-WWII and in Iraq, post-2003. But others do not.
The most likely combat involving the U.S. and Iran would actually be an air strike, perhaps supplemented by special forces on the ground for a short period of time. The U.S. has produced massive ordinance penetrators (MOP) for this very purpose. The MOP is a U.S. Air Force precision-guided, 30,000-pound “bunker buster” bomb, which has, as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said, “the capability to shut down, set back and destroy the Iranian nuclear program.” Contrary to the Iraq war, such an attack on Iran is unlikely to result in major U.S. casualties, and it is also not likely to last long.
Further, Iran does not have the military or air forces to allow them to effectively strike back militarily at the U.S. Their only response can and will be terror attacks. Which they are already doing; such as in 2011, when they unsuccessfully planned an attack in Georgetown.
Now, perhaps some might argue that the Iranians would double or triple their plotting of terror attacks. Which they might do anyway, since the Iran deal will provide them with an extra $150 billion plus sanctions relief. Then again, perhaps they would not.
Instead, the Iranians might be intimidated by the U.S. assault.
It is often said that in the Middle East “(p)ower is respected; weakness is not.” This concept has also been popularized by Osama Bin Laden, who memorably was quoted as saying that people favor the “strong horse” over the “weak horse.” He meant that most Muslims respect and support a strong nation, even if that nation is not always friendly towards them, rather than a weak nation that keeps trying to endear itself to them. Iran, as a Muslim nation, is likely to respect the “strong horse.”
It certainly has in the past. In 1981, the American hostages were released by Iran when a new and widely considered stronger U.S. president took office. Also, in 1988, during Operation Praying Mantis, U.S. naval ships attacked and destroyed Iranian targets in retaliation for an Iranian mine damaging a U.S. ship. The Iranians had been mining the Persian Gulf as part of their war with Iraq; the U.S. had been escorting Kuwait oil tankers through the sea zones to keep the international oil routes open. Soon after this operation, a U.S. ship unfortunately and accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 Iranian crew and passengers. The Americans mistook the Iranian airplane for an attacking fighter. According to scholars, these American actions led the Ayatollah Khomeini, the then-clerical dictator of Iran, to agree to the cessation of the eight year Iran-Iraq War -- and the connected Persian Gulf mining -- because of his fear of the increasing American involvement.
The Iranians still have something to lose in the above scenario; an American attack on their nuclear program is not directed at removing the Iranian regime. The U.S., however, has that ability as well. And the Iranians know this. So they have an incentive not to push for a longer war.
It is also a fact that twice -- in 1981, and in 2007 -- Israel struck the nuclear programs of Iraq and Syria without provoking a wider war with extensive combat operations.
Apart from the multiple types of ‘war’ that President Obama ignores, there are also several other valid options besides his agreement.
This bad deal -- like any deal -- can be renegotiated. Eric Edelman and Ray Takeyh, noted foreign policy authorities, advocate exactly this:
A careful examination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reveals that it concedes an enrichment capacity that is too large; sunset clauses that are too short; a verification regime that is too leaky; and enforcement mechanisms that are too suspect. No agreement is perfect, but at times the scale of imperfection is so great that the judicious course is to reject the deal and renegotiate a more stringent one. The way for this to happen is for Congress to disapprove the JCPOA.
There is also the possibility of reimposing, or implementing new sanctions, to further grind down the Iranians (to the same place or worse than they were when President Obama allowed them to get off the carpet with money from the JPOA). President Obama seems to enjoy dismissing this possibility, perhaps because he has a noted preference for “leading from behind.” But the president’s argument that the international community will not go along with new sanctions is not particularly persuasive. The U.S. is the natural leader of the world community, and often must be the “adult” in the room to lead the international community to do the right thing. An accomplished president can, and has, done this before. Both President G.H.W. and G.W. Bush persuaded huge international coalitions to support their wars in Iraq. In neither case was this easy or popular. President G.W. Bush persuaded the international community to impose sanctions on Iran in the first place, and Obama generally followed his lead (grudgingly), until 2013.
Even going back to the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) is a better alternative than the current option heading before the Congress. The JPOA, unlike the JCPOA, does not give Iran $150 billion in frozen funds, end the embargoes on Iran regarding conventional arms and ballistic missiles, commit the West to assist Iran in developing nuclear power, to protect Iranian nuclear facilities from sabotage, or to provide Qasem Soleimani with sanctions relief.
In reality, President Obama is so dismissive of the possibility of renegotiation simply because he doesn’t want to renegotiate. President Obama wants to get a deal with Islamist Iran as quickly as possible, and he doesn’t care much what is in this bad deal. The president wants to officially “end” the thirty-five year struggle between Iran and the U.S., and thus go down in history as a great “peacemaker.” He also has the hope that this “peace” will allow the U.S. to cede to Iran the responsibility for dealing with ISIS and other Middle East problems. The quickest way for the president to get a deal with Iran is to accept the current bad deal and then push it through Congress by painting his opponents as reckless warmongers, and so that is what he is doing.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s plan is working all too well. Even more unfortunately, this bad deal with Islamist Iran makes future war more, not less, likely, and also increases the likelihood that this war will be a more serious and protracted struggle with Iran.
But none of this bothers President Obama, because by the time things unwind, he will be safely out of office, and all this will fall on the lap of another president.
Adam Turner serves as general counsel for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he focused on national security law.