Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaks at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S., October 13, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Note to Blinken: Israel’s ‘military option’ shouldn’t be on our table

This week the secretary of state seemed to encourage Yair Lapid’s talk about using force. Is diplomacy dead?

As indirect talks to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remain in limbo, the U.S. and Israeli governments continue suggesting that “other options,” including military action, are available and will be considered if the talks should fail. 

The latest example of this came during a press conference between Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week along with their counterpart from the United Arab Emirates. Commenting on Iran’s nuclear program, Lapid said that “Israel reserves the right to act at any given moment, in any way,” and he stated, “We know there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil.” For his part, Blinken said that “time is running short” to restore the nuclear deal, and he affirmed that “Israel has the right to defend itself and we strongly support that proposition.” 

In the context of discussing Iran’s nuclear program, what Lapid and Blinken are referring to is an endorsement of an illegal and unprovoked attack on Iran in the name of “preventing” Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon that Iran is not seeking. It is a measure of how ineffective U.S. diplomacy has been over the last six months that administration officials are now contemplating “options” that have already failed or should never be tried.

Blinken said that diplomacy is still the “most effective way” to keep Iran’s nuclear program peaceful, but the record of their diplomacy to date has been underwhelming. Slow to engage, unwilling to offer even the smallest goodwill gestures, and refusing to take the initiative in rejoining the agreement, the Biden administration has gone through the motions of diplomatic engagement without offering Iran anything of substance to kickstart the process of returning to full compliance. The new Raisi government in Tehran has responded to this by engaging in its own delaying tactics for the last few months. As frustrating as the negotiations have been up until now, there is no realistic alternative that would restore restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program except to stick with the talks to a successful conclusion. The fact that the Biden administration has been glancing at the exits for the last several months has hardly helped matters.

While there is grumbling from the Israeli side that their government does not believe the Biden administration is serious when it talks about “other options” or “other avenues” if diplomacy should fail, U.S. officials are signaling that the U.S. views Israeli attacks on Iran’s facilities and territory as self-defense. That is dangerous, and one that puts the U.S. in the awful position of having endorsed an Israeli attack that it cannot control. Even if this is meant only as a sop to hard-liners, it identifies the U.S. with whatever the Israeli government chooses to do. When Israel’s political leadership keeps hinting at taking military action, it is irresponsible for the U.S. to be giving them a green light. As Lapid said during the press conference, “by saying other options, I think everybody understands here, in Israel, in the Emirates, and in Tehran what is it that we mean.” The threat to commit acts of war is clear.   

It is important to understand that there is nothing defensive about the actions Israel has already taken in sabotaging Iranian facilities and assassinating Iranian scientists, and there would be nothing defensive about direct military attacks on Iranian soil. It should go without saying that having a right to self-defense is not a license to initiate hostilities against another country on the pretext that it might pose some future danger. It wasn’t self-defense when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and it wouldn’t be self-defense to drop bombs on Iran.

Any “preventive” military action against Iran would not only be a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the use or threat of force in international relations except in self-defense, but it would also likely produce the outcome that it is supposedly trying to stop, namely Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. Even if Iran were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, that would not give any other state permission to launch attacks on their territory. Since there is no evidence that Iran currently has a nuclear weapons program, that would clearly make military strikes on their nuclear facilities acts of criminal aggression. Nothing would give the Iranian government a stronger incentive to build its own deterrent than an attack on their country. Just as the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak forty years ago pushed Saddam Hussein to pursue nuclear weapons in earnest, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely push the Iranian government to make the political decision to seek nuclear weapons that it has rejected for almost two decades before now. Using force to resolve the nuclear issue is a dead end, but it seems to be one that the U.S. and Israel are willing to entertain. 

The Biden administration claims that time is running out for Iran to resume full compliance, but there is no option for restoring the nuclear deal that doesn’t involve a diplomatic compromise. “Maximum pressure” sanctions have failed, as the Biden administration has acknowledged more than once, so keeping sanctions in place or piling on more will achieve nothing except to spur continued expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. Covert sabotage has succeeded only in provoking Iran to enrich uranium to higher levels than ever before and to end its voluntary implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. Military action would be illegal and wrong, and it would all but guarantee the outcome that the nuclear deal had already blocked. It would also expose U.S. troops throughout the region to reprisal attacks and possibly trigger a larger war. 

Before the U.S. undermined it, the JCPOA was a major nonproliferation success story, and it was also a victory for resolving a longstanding international dispute through compromise. The conclusion of the agreement in 2015 reduced regional tensions and made war with Iran much less likely, and it is no accident that regional tensions and the likelihood of war have both spiked as the agreement has gone on life support. When the Obama administration was first presenting the agreement to the world, they argued that its opponents had no alternative except war. As the negotiations over restoring the JCPOA falter, we are reminded once again that this is the only real alternative that hawks have to offer. The “options” that the hawks talk about are doomed to fail, and the cost of these options will be far greater than the sanctions relief that is needed to salvage the nuclear deal.

Diplomatic compromise with Iran was the only thing that resolved the nuclear issue six years ago, and it is the only thing that is going to revive the JCPOA now. The “other options” that Lapid and Blinken mentioned lead to more failure and possibly to new conflict. In that respect, Blinken was wrong to say that diplomacy is the “most effective way” to prevent Iran from acquiring the nuclear weapon. As we should all realize by now, it is the only way.

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