Illustration by Brian Rea
Illustration by Brian Rea

Three years ago, President Barack Obama came into office with a very good idea: He would reach out to the mullahs in Iran to see whether they were interested in rethinking their hate-based relationship with the U.S.

So Obama, despite criticism from Republicans, wrote private letters to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and made a public appeal for a fresh start.

“In this season of new beginnings, I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders,” Obama said in a message broadcast in early 2009. “We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.”

When the Iranian people rose up later that year, Obama only tepidly endorsed them, and he was measured in his criticism of the vicious manner in which the Iranian leadership suppressed the protests. He may have been motivated partly by an assessment that the uprising wouldn’t succeed, and that the U.S. would still have to grapple with the Iranian theocracy. His approach was neither morally nor emotionally satisfying, but it showed a certain cold logic.

Nothing happened, of course: The ayatollahs showed no interest in Obama’s entreaties.

Getting Tougher

Fast-forward three years. The Obama administration is now tougher on Iran than was the administration of George W. Bush. It has imposed the most sweeping sanctions ever placed on the country, including sanctions against the Iranian central bank. It is helping coordinate a threatened international boycott of Iranian oil. And, according to diplomatic sources I spoke to last week, it has asked its Gulf Arab allies -- including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- to sharply limit their contacts with official Iranian delegations.

So Republicans who still call Obama soft on Tehran are either delusional or cynical. His administration has moved a long way from engagement. In fact, it now appears to be moving inexorably toward war.

The issue that will provoke that war is the Iranian nuclear program. The administration has left itself no maneuverability on this question. Last month, Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, told a group of Jewish leaders that he was furious “that there are people out there who doubt our resolve to stop Iran.”

On Jan. 8, Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, said that the U.S. would act if it found that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon: “I think they need to know that if they take that step -- that they’re going to be stopped.”

It appears that Iran is unmoved by such threats. Not only has it intensified its belligerent rhetoric -- threatening to shut the Strait of Hormuz to oil-tanker traffic and suggesting that U.S. aircraft carriers aren’t welcome in the Persian Gulf - - it has sentenced to death a former Marine named Amir Mirzaei Hekmati on charges that he spied against Iran for the CIA. (The U.S. denies that Hekmati was a spy.)

More ominously, the pro-regime Iranian newspaper Kayhan reported that uranium enrichment has begun at a nuclear site called Fordow near the holy city of Qom. This is a consequential move: Most of Iran’s nuclear sites are vulnerable to air attack, but Fordow is a hardened underground site. Because Israel has only a limited ability to penetrate deeply buried bunkers, a decisive move underground by Iran could push Israel to attack preemptively.

U.S. Attack Possible

The argument is also being made in Washington that the U.S. should strike Iran now, or in the very near future.

Some Republican presidential candidates have been agitating for a preemptive strike, and their cause has been buttressed by an influential article in Foreign Affairs magazine by Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who says that a U.S. attack could set back the Iranian program decisively, and even cause the regime to abandon it.

Kroenig argues that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten U.S. allies and be prohibitively expensive to contain. He writes: “Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war. Faced with that decision, the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis.”

Kroenig is correct to identify the Iranian nuclear program as a foremost threat to American national security. But he is wrong -- or at least premature -- to advocate for a preemptive strike. A strike now would exchange a theoretical nightmare (a difficult-to-contain nuclear Iran) with an actual nightmare (an all-out conventional war across the Middle East).

The U.S. may one day have to stop Iran’s nuclear program by force. Before it takes such drastic action, it should, once again, attempt to show Iran the possibility of a different future, one in which it is allowed to rejoin the community of nations.

The president would have to spend significant political capital, in an election year no less, by once again reaching out to America’s foremost adversary. He could do it in such a way that doesn’t convey weakness, but simply horror at the prospect of war.

Obama would have to convince the Iranians that he is offering one final chance at real dialogue -- not out of weakness, but because, as a peace-loving person, he doesn’t want to order the destruction of Iran’s military and industrial infrastructure. And he could offer material prospects for normalized relations with the West, which might be more meaningful now that he has demonstrated his commitment to isolating the regime economically.

The chance for success is slim. Anti-Americanism is a pillar of the Iranian regime’s faith, and the case of Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up his weapons of mass destruction and then saw the U.S. aid the rebels who eventually did him in, is on the minds of Iran’s leaders. And Israel, along with the U.S.’s Arab allies, would have to be convinced that this is a time-limited offer.

A war with Iran could be a disaster for everyone involved, and even those uninvolved. A last attempt at dialogue -- a last attempt to build an offramp for the Iranians -- seems to have fewer downsides than a rush to war.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.