Does President Obama “still believe that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear bomb?” That is the question marked in a brief comment by journalist Lee Smith, writing in the Weekly Standard magazine. It was a shrewd question, which is no doubt why it was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. It is pegged to the fact that Vice President Biden has just named as his national security adviser Colin Kahl, who last year published a lengthy sketch of what a containment policy for a nuclear Iran could look like were the U.S. administration to abandon its commitment to deny the mullahs an A-bomb.
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It is tempting say that the alighting of a dove on Iran onto the staff of a weak vice president is not worth the typewriter ribbon, as we used to say. As recently as 2012, Kahl himself, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, characterized as “dead wrong” a suggestion “that the Islamic Republic would likely become a more responsible international actor if it crossed the nuclear threshold.” But my own instinct that this is a situation to watch, not least because the temptation that seems to be afoot in Washington to look to Iran for help with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
This was well-marked by Ambassador Ron Dermer at a pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration he hosted earlier this month at Washington. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency account of the event, Dermer noted the presence of American administration officials at the reception. He praised the administration for going after Islamic State (previously know as ISIS). Then he warned: “Now I know there is still some absurd talk in certain quarters about Iran being a partner in solving problems in the Middle East. They are not a partner, they were not a partner, they never will be a partner.”
“Iran as a nuclear power,” Dermer said, “is a thousand times more dangerous than ISIS.”
Yet the vice president’s new adviser has sketched precisely a policy for accepting — that is, containing — a nuclear Iran. It’s titled “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” and was published by the Center for a New American Security. It makes clear that containment isn’t its ideal option. It looks at what it calls “a containment strategy to manage and mitigate the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed Iran if prevention efforts – up to and including the use of force – fail.” It outlines eleven “core objectives.”
They include preventing “direct Iranian use of nuclear weapons” and “Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists.” But their objectives also include: “Persuade Israel to eschew a destabilizing nuclear posture that emphasizes early use of nuclear weapons or hair-trigger launch procedures.” In other words, one of the key core objectives of the Kahl strategy in the event that Iran should fetch up with the bomb is getting Israel to lighten up. Let me just say, I’m old, and I’ve covered a lot of ideas. But this one takes the cake.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the Kahl paper is anti-Israel. One of the things it recommends, under the head of deterrence, is “[p]roviding Israel with a U.S. nuclear guarantee and engaging Israeli leaders on steps to enhance the credibility” of the Jewish state’s own “nuclear deterrent.” But it also suggests, among several steps under the heading of “de-escalation,” the idea of “[p]ersuading Israel to eschew a preemptive nuclear doctrine and other destabilizing nuclear postures.” Kahl seems to be under the impression that Israel could absorb a first strike before acting.
The report does not recommend a shift toward a containment strategy. But it strikes me as dangerous even to be talking about it, never mind hiring the author of such a sketch into the White House. The more one hears about containment, the more clear becomes the importance of never letting Iran get even close to the bomb in the first place, even to if military action is required. Supposedly the Obama administration is pledged not to let the mullahs get a nuclear bomb. But Lee Smith, who wrote the squib in the Weekly Standard that so many are talking about, notes that when Obama went before the UN this week, he “conspicuously omitted that pledge.”
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.