Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Thoughts on Obama’s Iran Interview

For those who haven’t already, I’d encourage readers to check out Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama published this morning over at the Atlantic. Whatever one thinks of Goldberg, he gets at some very important questions on the eve of Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu, touching in particular on the U.S. and Israeli stances toward Iran. Obama delivers a surprising amount of nuance for an elected official, and while I find some of what he says worrying, he makes a decent case for U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic.

I won’t attempt a detailed reading of the tea leaves here. The audiences for this kind of thing are myriad – American voters, the American Jewish community, European allies, Russia, China, Israel, and, of course, Iran – and it’s hard to tell exactly which statements are calibrated to which group. It’s also remarkable how much the president managed to maintain a measure of tactical and strategic opacity while at the same time sounding unequivocal.

I would note two things. First, Obama frames the problem with Iran’s nuclear ambitions as being about the nature of multidimensional deterrence, not one of terrorism or messianic intentions on the part of the regime in Tehran. It would be nice if that kind of debate were more prominent in the national conversation, and I’m glad that’s how it’s being framed at the White House.

Second, while I think Obama’s doing a decent job rhetorically threading the needle, it’s true that U.S., Israeli (as well as, to state the obvious, Iranian) rhetoric has painted everyone involved into a bit of a corner. It will be difficult, both strategically and politically, for the U.S. to acquiesce to an Iranian bomb, particularly given the Israeli capacity for independent military action. To this end, it’s nice to see Obama thinking in terms of offering a solution that allows Tehran to adjust its own policy without losing too much face. Wars do start over such things.

Overall, the interview actually makes me a bit nervous, as it represents a very specific and direct doubling down on the military angle, even if it’s de-emphasized. But at least it resembles a conversation among adults.

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