President Obama bought some time in his meeting this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see if diplomacy and sanctions can pressure Iran to change course. This time would be well spent to build if not a regional consensus for military action, at least broader public acceptance of the need to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. To do that, the administration should draw some lessons from past interventions, lessons to be both followed and avoided.
The first is to recognize that Iran can’t be Libya. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis termed Libya a “model intervention.” It was, but as we have seen with Syria and most likely with Iran as well, it may be a one-off that will not soon be repeated. The Arab League is not likely to support a military strike against Iran publicly, even though many regional governments will privately welcome such a step. Prospects of a UN Security Council resolution are uncertain. But it will be vital to achieve the strong sense of legitimacy that gave the Libya intervention its strength.
Kosovo is a better model to consider. Russia blocked an authorizing UN Security Council resolution, so the Clinton administration sought authority from NATO to force Serbia out of Kosovo. In the end, former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan called the operation “illegal but legitimate.” Regarding Iran, the IAEA can help validate that Iran’s failure to meet its international obligations and that Iran is moving towards a breakout capability.
Military force must be viewed as a last resort to be credible. In upcoming negotiations, the so-called P5+1 must be viewed as the reasonable actor. Recall the power of the last-minute negotiating session in Geneva between Secretary of State James Baker and his Iraqi counterpart Tariq Aziz prior to the First Gulf War. The international community was viewed as going the extra mile to avoid conflict.
That did not happen with the Second Gulf War. The Bush administration put significant pressure on the United Nations to uphold a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and it netted meaningful concessions from Iraq including the reintroduction of UN weapons inspectors. But the United States appeared to the rest of the world to be rushing to war, which ultimately undercut its legitimacy.
More than anything else, patience will be vital as the United States and the international community works through his complex challenge. It needs to build a convincing narrative that Iran poses a clear danger not just to the United States and Israel, but to the region as a whole; that Iran is in fact determined to build a nuclear weapon, not just generate civilian energy; that it is taking action that the Ayatollah himself termed a “sin”; that the international community has patiently attempted to resolve this through diplomacy and sanction; and if necessary military action is necessary and limited.
The President said this week there is too much “loose talk of war.” He was right to quiet the drumbeats for the time being, but now he must lead a sustained and patient dialogue with a newly energized and empowered “street” across the Middle East that military action, while the last resort, may be necessary to resolve this problem once and for all.