Rejecting charges of appeasing Iran, President Barack Obama cautioned Thursday that tightening the economic vise on Tehran could be counterproductive and bluntly warned that going to war will never guarantee that the Islamic republic abandons its suspect nuclear program.
"No matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, always have unintended consequences, and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they don't then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future," the president told reporters during a press conference dominated by the botched rollout of Obamacare.
The notion might seem heretical in Washington, where successive presidents including Obama have professed that "all options are on the table" (including war) to force Iran to abandon what the United States and its partners regard as a covert effort to get the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
But even under then-President George W. Bush, officials cautioned privately that military action might simply unite Iranians behind the notion that their country requires nuclear weapons to fend off the United States, while economic sanctions could persuade Iran's leaders and people alike that the costs outweigh the benefits.
"The best way to assure that a country does not have nuclear weapons is that they are making a decision not to have nuclear weapons and we are in a position to verify that they don't have nuclear weapons," Obama said Thursday.
The president also lent his weight to a concerted lobbying campaign by this administration to convince Congress not to approve another round of sanctions against Iran. Obama aides warn that piling on sanctions at a time when the United States and its partners are negotiating a halt in some Iranian nuclear activities in return for a slight and reversible easing of punitive measures currently in place could lead Tehran to conclude Washington is negotiating in bad faith and even drive other countries to relax restrictions on their own.
"if we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there is no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them in table in the first place," Obama said. "Now, if it turns out they can't deliver, they can't come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up."
Republicans and some Democrats have ramped up criticisms of Obama's Iran outreach, echoing denunciations by Israel. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., even compared the president to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who thought to buy "peace in our time" by appeasing Adolf Hitler in the days before World War II.
"I've said before and I will repeat, we do not want Iran having nuclear weapons. And it would be not only dangerous to us and our allies, but it would be destabilizing to the entire region and could trigger a nuclear arms race that would make life much more dangerous for all of us," Obama said Thursday. "And I'm leaving all options on the table to make sure that we meet that goal."
Administration officials have signaled that Iran could win easing of financial restrictions — like thawing some frozen assets — in return for steps to convince world powers that it is not seeking the ability to build nuclear weapons under the guise of developing a civilian energy program. Obama underlined that any such steps — the subject of negotiations between Tehran and the so-called "P5+1" grouping the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — could be reversed.
The president said Iran would have to "halt advances on its program" and "dilute" some of its highly enriched uranium, a raw material for atomic weapons, as well as accept intrusive international inspections "so that we know exactly what they're doing at all their various facilities.
Republicans have countered that the outlines of the agreement resemble the basic architecture of then-President Bill Clinton's deal with North Korea, which went on to renege on the accord, develop nuclear weapons and craft rockets seemingly designed to someday serve as missiles.
Obama has insisted that his administration's support for crippling economic sanctions on Iran should prove that he won't waver.
"I think it's fair to say that I know a little bit about sanctions, since we set them up and made sure that we mobilized the entire international community so that there weren't a lot of loopholes and they really had bite," he said, thanking Congress for "help" in developing the sanctions regime.
But this grossly simplifies the history of sanctions on Iran. In December 2011, the Senate voted 100-0 to adopt a punishing new bipartisan sanctions plan over stiff opposition from the Obama administration, which argued that doing so risked fracturing the diplomatic consensus on isolating Iran.