- - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Iran’s rulers brutalize their own citizens, sponsor terrorism on several continents, and openly vow “death to America.” They are determined to acquire the ability to develop nuclear weapons and deliver them to targets anywhere in the world.

Can President Obama stop them? That’s not the question.

Or rather, that’s not the question now being asked by the keenest observers of the diplomatic dance underway between Iran and the United States. What they are asking instead: Is Mr. Obama serious about trying to stop Tehran’s revolutionary theocrats from becoming nuclear-armed, or is that not really his goal at this point?

“The fear,” a former senior intelligence official told me, “is that the Iranians are going to pretend to give up their nuclear-weapons program — and we’re going to pretend to believe them.”

Similarly, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, last week told a large audience at the annual Washington Forum of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the think tank I lead): “No one wants a diplomatic solution more than I do. But it cannot be a deal for a deal’s sake. And I am worried [President Obama and his advisers] want a deal more than they want the right deal.”

Michael Doran, a former senior director of the National Security Council, former Defense Department official, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, considered this possibility in a penetrating article in the journal Mosaic a few months back. He recalled that in 2012, Mr. Obama reiterated his pledge to do whatever might be necessary to prevent Iran from developing nukes — even if that necessitates the use of force. “As president of the United States,” he emphasized to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “I don’t bluff.”

Subsequently, of course, Mr. Obama not only bluffed — he had his bluff called by Iran’s client, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Mr. Obama had warned Mr. Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, and that if he did, he would cross a “red line” that would bring swift and painful punishment.

However, Mr. Doran wrote, after an August 2013 chemical attack that killed some 1,500 Syrians, “instead of ordering military action, the president decided to seek congressional authorization for the use of force, knowing full well that such a bill had little chance of passing.”

Mr. Obama’s aversion to the use of military power is understandable — and shared by most Americans. One of the clearest lessons of history, though, is that those who project strength end up using it sparingly, while those who project weakness invite their enemies to test them.

By declaring himself “war-weary,” by insisting — against the evidence — that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat,” and “the tide of war is receding,” by shrinking the U.S. military, punting on Syria and responding fecklessly to Russian incursions in Ukraine, Mr. Obama has diminished his own credibility. That increases the likelihood that he will be left with a binary choice: war or capitulation. Capitulation, albeit wrapped in fancy diplomatic language, looks increasingly likely in regards to Iran.

Economic warfare can be an alternative to military force, but not when it’s pursued half-heartedly. A robust sanctions package carefully constructed by Congress (Republicans and Democrats alike) and signed by the president (to his credit), brought Iran to the negotiating table. At that table, in Geneva in January, the president’s envoys concluded an interim Joint Plan of Action that eased the economic pressure — a new International Monetary Fund report finds Iran now experiencing a modest economic recovery — in return for small potatoes on the weapons side.

Specifically, under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran’s rulers are not required to dismantle their nuclear program — even in part. As Mr. Doran notes: “It pauses some aspects, while others proceed apace. A ‘research’ loophole allows the Iranians to continue work on advanced centrifuges. In short, Iran gets to have it both ways: to enjoy sanctions relief (the West’s part of the deal) while continuing to build up its nuclear program (Iran’s part of the deal).”

If stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not Mr. Obama’s real goal, what is? Most likely, he foresees a system of deterrence and containment — akin to the strategy that the United States pursued against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What’s wrong with that?

First, it misreads history: The Cold War was a time of regional and proxy wars (for example in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Africa and Afghanistan), as well as moments when World War III could have broken out, but didn’t, thanks to American presidents willing and able to make credible threats. (Think of President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.) In other words: A policy of containment most emphatically does require a major military component.

Second, even the most hard-core Soviets understood that “mutually assured destruction” would not be in their interest. By contrast, Iran’s theocrats may seriously believe that “martyrs” killed fighting “infidels” reap rewards in the afterlife. In other words: Deterrence, though effective against atheist ideologues, is a dubious policy against those whose religious duty is to defeat the enemies of God.

If a deal is struck with the Iranians over the coming months, expect it to feature technical formulas comprehensible only to experts: complex rules on how many centrifuges the Iranians may spin, how much uranium may be enriched to what levels, the size of stockpiles, and what international weapons inspectors may see.

Such a deal would let Iran’s rulers continue to move toward the nuclear finish line, while lifting most of the remaining economic pressure. Both sides would claim diplomacy had succeeded. About that, one side would be telling the truth. The other side, however, would be pretending.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.