I’ve suggested that the less President Obama and his top advisers say about their new Iran nuclear deal, the better its chances of Congressional approval, and Secretary of State John Kerry recently provided a great example that somehow escaped even the critics’ notice.
The president plainly thinks that one of the strongest arguments on behalf of the deal is that it’s America’s best option for keeping Iran nuclear weapons-free short of war. And most of his critics plainly agree with his assumption that such a conflict would be terrible. Otherwise, why would they keep insisting despite all the evidence that tougher sanctions, or a prolonging of current sanctions, can get the job done?
I agree that a military strike could be very dangerous. It’s anything but clear that the U.S. government knows where all of Iran’s key sites are, and secret facilities would almost by definition survive American bombs and missiles. Moreover, military actions have a nasty habit of producing unexpected and harmful consequences.
But here’s the funny thing: According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the president actually isn’t so worried. And Kerry’s stated views could legitimately be interpreted as agreeing – at least if you take seriously some July 24 remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.
The Council, just to remind, is a combination foreign policy education and discussion group and research organization, and its members include many of America’s top private business and financial leaders as well as current and former government officials (along with, less impressively, chattering class types like think tank staffers and journalists). So Kerry (a member himself) presumably was choosing his words even more carefully even than usual. It’s worth quoting at some length what he said about the military option:
“Now, I know there’s been a lot of railing through the years over their [Iran’s nuclear] program, and people rant and rave. And we know we’ve seen the prime minister with a cartoon of a bomb at the UN and so on and so forth. But what’s happened? What has anybody done about it? Anybody got a plan to roll it back? Anybody got a plan that’s viable beyond bombing them for one or two days or three days that might slow their program down for two years or three years? To which, as most of you as practical human beings, you know what the response will be.
“I mean, we can do it, and we haven’t taken it off the table. Let me make that absolutely clear. This President is the only president who has actually developed something called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the MOP, which has been written about publicly. And not only has he asked it to be designed, he’s deployed it.
“…And when I became Secretary of State, when he called me into the Oval Office and I sat with him, I said, ‘Mr. President, if I’m going to be your Secretary of State, I want to know that if I’m going around and talking to countries in the Middle East and I say you’re prepared to use military action, I don’t want to be a Secretary of State for whom you’ve pulled out the rug.’
“…And he looked at me and he said, ‘John, let me tell you something directly. Iran will not get a nuclear weapon and I will do whatever is necessary, but I believe diplomacy has to be put to the test first.’”
So according to Kerry, although Mr. Obama is by no means anxious to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, his position that all options needed to remain “on the table” has not simply been talk. He gave the orders to develop a weapon needed to achieve success and to put it into service.
Kerry’s own views of using force and of its consequences are at least as interesting. He told Council members that “We can do it” and that between one and three days of strikes “might slow their program down for two years or three years.” To be sure, the Secretary did add, “you know what the response will be.” In fact, though, this matter is far from clear.
For example, what Kerry didn’t mention during this appearance was the possibility of such attacks triggering a region-wide Middle East war. Nor did he bring up the prospect that the so-called “Arab Street” might rise up in anger. Maybe that’s because, if anything, Sunni Arab public opinion could well welcome action against Shia Iran. Meanwhile, the region’s other Shiites – in Iraq and Syria – seem to have their hands full with ISIS and with embattled Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad’s remaining forces.
Kerry might be referring to a point he has made elsewhere – that Iran’s knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle can’t be “bombed away,” and that Tehran could simply start all over again. At the same time, if this is Kerry’s point, it hardly proves that military action would be futile. After all, creating enough physical destruction to slow Iran’s weaponization plans by two to three years sounds pretty impressive – especially compared with a deal whose flawed verification and sanctions snap-back provisions could easily permit Tehran to continue progressing toward weapons capability with its remaining human and physical infrastructure intact. Moreover, if the Iranian nuclear program shows signs of attaining critical mass again, it could be attacked again.
Again, none of the above means that I favor the military option. What it does mean is that the president himself might not believe one of the main arguments for his Iran deal. If true, that could ironically hearten many opponents – but frighten many supporters.