Does the President Believe We Have a Military Option?

Here is another excellent question from Robert Satloff to President Obama, presented as part of our continuing series amplifying his critique of the deal.

The supreme leader clearly wants the benefits of the deal—both in terms of sanctions relief and the international validation it brings for Iran’s nuclear program. Yet you seem to bend over backwards to be wary of saying things that might upset him. (Given the supreme leader’s continued hostility toward America, this is a characteristic that he doesn’t seem to share.) Specifically, in your letter to Congressman Nadler, why did you resort once again to the “all options are on the table” formulation in the event Iran dashes toward a bomb? Since a “dash” implies Iran would be hell-bent toward achieving its goal, why not state bluntly that we would use force to stop them? If they are dashing, haven’t they already violated the core commitment in the Iran agreement not to pursue a weapon? If they are dashing, the threat of renewed sanctions surely isn’t an effective deterrent. Wouldn’t candor produce more deterrence than subtlety?  

One of the clear outcomes of this deal is that our military options will be increasingly limited.  We are developing technologies to counter the military technologies that Iran is planning to purchase just as soon as restrictions are lifted, but as of yet these are still on the drawing-board.  The President’s formula, “all options are on the table,” may be intended to admit that the military option could cease to be a preferable option under the deal.  Rather than commit to it, he wants to leave himself room to pursue other options instead of the use of force to stop the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Alternatively, it could be that he doesn’t feel it would be an option at all.  UN Security Council Ruling 2231, which endorses the deal and sets out standards for its enforcement, does not leave the United States room to act militarily against Iran.  The resolution contains no provisions about the use of force.  It mentions the word “military” only one time, in a clause banning interference with Iran’s.  It does contain clauses requiring the United States and all other parties to submit to the international resolution methods set out in the ruling.

In other words, the President probably believes that we would have to go back to the United Nations Security Council to obtain new authority for an military action against Iran.  Whether we have a “military option,” then, will depend on the vote of Vladimir Putin and not the votes of the United States Congress.

This appears to be the same way that he is handling the sanctions question.  Although in the political discussion there has been frequent talk about ‘snapback sanctions,’ the actual text of the UN resolution’s Annex A forbids us to implement any without permission.  The President is obligated by that annex to attempt to dissuade Congress from doing so, and indeed he has advised them not to do so, as has his Secretary of the Treasury.

Should that be the case, the President already is speaking candidly with Iran.  It is the American people with whom he is being subtle.  There is of course the potential that Russia and China might agree to a UN Security Council resolution endorsing military force against Iran’s nuclear program, so we can’t say that the military option is fully off the table.  On the other hand, it is currently unauthorized, and would only become an actual option if Russia and China did agree.  Thus, “all options are on the table” more accurately captures the situation than “we will use force to stop them,” as we do not yet know if we will have the option of using force.

A different President might take a different position on the authority of the United States versus the United Nations.  However, this does seem to be consistent with both this President’s words and his actions thus far.

Iran itself seems to be taking a different line, having already stated that the will not grant the IAEA permission to inspect “every” site whatever the ruling may say, and that they recognize no ballistic missile restrictions in the UN Security Council ruling as binding.  In this they, too, are being consistent with both their previous words and their previous actions.