Is Obama Bluffing on Iran?

Mike Doran at the Brookings Institution thinks Barack Obama is bluffing on Iran.

President Obama has repeatedly promised to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. If there is no other choice, he says, he will resort to force. In a March 2012 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the president famously rejected the alternative policy, namely, allowing Iran to go nuclear and then trying to contain it. He emphasized the point dramatically: “[A]s president of the United States,” he said, “I don’t bluff.”

Really? Suppose this statement was just a show of toughness, timed to keep supporters of Israel on his side during the 2012 campaign season. Suppose that, when it came to Iran, in his heart of hearts, the president actually preferred a strategy of containment to a strategy of prevention. Suppose that was actually his policy aim from the outset—but, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t say so. How would he proceed?

He would proceed exactly as he has been proceeding—trumpeting his intention to roll back the Iranian nuclear program while actually avoiding confrontation at all costs.

I think this is right. If you’re not convinced, read Doran’s whole argument. It won’t take long. The case is easy to make.

I never believed the president intends to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Middle Eastern governments—Arab and Israeli alike—don’t believe it either. Maybe everyone’s wrong. It happens.

We could and should have a discussion about this, whether containment and hope is preferable to prevention and risk, but instead we’re getting foreign policy theater.

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