Cliff May

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 U.S. What they are asking instead: Is 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 (D-NJ) last week told a large audience at the annual Washington Forum of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the think tank I head): “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 they [President Obama and his advisors] 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, 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, Obama not only bluffed – he had his bluff called by Iran’s client, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Obama had warned Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people – if he did, he would cross a “red line” that would bring swift and painful punishment.

Cliff May

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