WASHINGTON — Despite all the threats Israel sees surrounding it, for the delegates assembled Sunday in the packed Washington Convention Center housing the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference, Iran’s attempt to procure a nuclear weapon still loomed largest.
At the conference, which takes place just weeks before President Barack Obama sets off to Israel for the first foreign trip of his second term, there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that 2013 will be a decisive year for Israel’s security, with dangers lurking north, south and east.
At the opening plenary session of the conference, two leading former US foreign policy officials spoke of their mutual, desired outcome for the Iranian nuclear standoff — prevention — yet offered two distinct views on how to reach it.
Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Mideast envoy in the Clinton Administration and previously Obama’s top adviser on Iran in the National Security Council, advocated a P5+1 negotiation strategy aimed at a final offer to Iran on uranium enrichment. “It’s time to go to an endgame,” Ross said Sunday morning. The weakness inherent in a step-by-step negotiation strategy, Ross argued, is that “Iranians have been playing the rope-a-dope strategy.”
Rather, offering an endgame proposal that would be theoretically satisfactory to both Iran and the West allows the P5+1 to call the Iranians on their bluff, Ross argued. “If you’re denying an excuse [for refusing an agreement], and the Iranians don’t respond, then maybe the position of the P5+1 has to be […] alright, we are beginning to lose patience.”
Ross’s counterpart, Elliott Abrams, was decidedly less optimistic about the prospect of recent negotiations yielding a positive outcome. “I worry about what I see in the papers,” said Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush. “It appears to me we are negotiating with ourselves. We see no concessions with Iran.”
While sanctions have effectively sent the Iranians’ economy spiraling, Abrams maintained that “the goal of sanctions is to prevent them from getting closer to a nuclear weapons capability, and we are failing to do that.”
The questions over the Iranian nuclear threat come at a time in United States political discourse when policymakers face complex political and ideological fights over the future of Washington’s foreign policy.
While pro-Israel advocates have welcomed Obama’s consistent reiterations that he would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, many vociferously criticized the president for nominating Chuck Hagel, a foreign policy “realist” who has previously advocated against war with Iran, for secretary of defense.
Additionally, while leading policymakers in Washington believe that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would present a national security threat to the United States, a growing number of dissenting, isolationist-leaning members of Congress (both Republican and Democrat) have argued that America’s economic condition poses a greater threat to national security than does any outside danger. A war with Iran, these members reason, would not only be wrong-headed, but it would waste billions of dollars and divert American attention from focusing on the recovery at home.
With these contradictory factors pushing and pulling at each other on Capitol Hill, can anyone conclude with full confidence that 2013 will be a decisive year with Iran?
Many leading voices on the issue, including both Ross and Abrams themselves, have previously stated that 2013 will indeed find either the US or Israel attacking Iran military, should diplomacy fail. Other Middle East experts, however, are not so sure.
“The notion that they are somehow inexorably drawing towards military action is wrongheaded,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser on Middle East issues to six secretaries of state between 1988 and 2003, in an interview. “This will be the year of no decision.”
This is due to three key factors, Miller argues: Israel’s awareness of the risks of a strike, Iran’s own determination to avoid a military strike, and Obama’s wariness of potential complications arising from war with Iran.
Miller argued: “Even though I suspect Obama is prepared to act because he does not want to be the first US president to preside over Iran crossing the nuclear threshold, that decision will be a long one.” When combined with Israel’s reticence and Iran’s “Tom and Jerry game” on negotiations, “These three self-reinforcing realities [… ] will combine to make much of 2013 a year of indecision when it comes to the question of peace or war.”
Taken together, the question of whether the moment of truth with Iran is near, and if it can be avoided, may remain open for now. Still, for the thousands of delegates who showed up at Capitol Hill’s doorstep for this year’s Policy Conference — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike — the end goal was, as always, unanimous: prevention is the only option.