This commentary originally appeared at Foreign Policy in Focus.
After months of conflating punitive sanctions with diplomatic engagement, President Barack Obama apparently believes he has nearly exhausted his diplomatic options for dealing with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
"I believe there is a window of time to solve this diplomatically, but that window is closing," he told reporters in Seoul on the eve of a nuclear summit. And given Washington's apparent distaste for letting any problem in the world go "unsolved," the president's words should be read as yet another military threat against the Iranian homeland.
Of course, exactly what problem remains to be "solved" is a little less clear on further examination.
In a lengthy interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, a sometimes-hawkish journalist with close ties to both the Obama administration and the Israeli defense establishment, Obama emphasized that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon "is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we're not taking any option off the table, we mean it. We are going to continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course."
One might get the impression that Obama is accusing Iran of building a nuclear weapon--and that the goal of sanctions, therefore, is to persuade the Iranian regime to stop. However, the president also conceded to Goldberg that "our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt."
By its own assessment, then, the United States is sanctioning Iran over a nuclear weapons program that neither the Mossad nor the CIA nor the president of the United States himself believes to exist. And they've repeatedly promised military action if the sanctions "fail" to make Iran give up a program that no one believes it has in the first place! In his 45-minute interview with the president, Goldberg never once seemed to catch onto this.
Nor is it an issue of inspections. Iran has already admitted inspectors into some of its more sensitive nuclear installations, and yet the U.S. Congress is still trying to push through ever newer rounds of sanctions against the regime.
Iran's Supreme Leader even called possession of nuclear weapons "a sin" and "against Islamic rules." The Supreme Leader may not be the most credible source on the matter, but that's about as close to a Rushdie-style fatwa against nukes as one is likely to hear.
So why the sanctions?
The most sinister explanation is that the sanctions are little more than a prelude to regime change. If sanctions "fail" -- and they can't really succeed, since the problem they purport to address is a fantasy -- then America's Iran hawks will have checked off yet another box on the road to war.
But although Obama's posturing toward Iran has been on balance quite hawkish, the president himself seems keen to avoid an overt military confrontation with the Islamic Republic--at least in an election year.
Maybe there's another reason. Obama hinted as much when he told Goldberg that "as Israel's closest friend and ally," it is incumbent on the United States to "point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions." According to the president, then, the primary purpose of U.S. sanctions on Iran is to persuade Israel that both the United States and the international community are committed to Israel's security--and, therefore, that there's no need for Israel to do something rash like unilaterally attacking Iran.
Put another way, Obama is sanctioning Iran to influence Israel's behavior. One could almost forgive Iran for feeling a little burned up about it.
Of course, once upon a time, a nuclear-armed country making open threats to attack a regional rival--particularly one that has never admitted IAEA inspectors and has chalked up a recent history of invading neighbors, bombing civilian population centers, and working with a terrorist organization to assassinate civilian nuclear scientists--would have found itself a prime target of international sanctions.
Apparently these are not ordinary times. But if Obama is concerned that his efforts at "diplomacy" are going nowhere, maybe it's because he's sanctioning the wrong country.