President Barack Obama is sending the right message to Iran, Israel and the American people that he will not support a pre-emptive military strike against Tehran's suspected nuclear facilities. An attack is premature as a military option, and heightening the threat now reduces the West's leverage to drive Iranian pragmatists to the bargaining table.
Obama should use his Sunday appearance before this nation's largest pro-Israel lobbying group and his Monday meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to underscore the administration's commitment to resolving this crisis peacefully. A military strike cannot be publicly ruled out. But there should be a far clearer understanding of Iran's capabilities and intent before anyone risks igniting a regionwide war.
A political course is not a reward for Tehran but a safety net for the West as it deals with an authoritarian regime roiling in a region of antigovernment upheaval. Though Israel insists that Iran is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons, the United States and Europe are split over how far Iran's efforts have progressed, the pace of the development program and Iran's long-term strategy for applying nuclear power.
These are essential questions the West must answer. The flawed case for invading Iraq was based as much on bad leadership as it was on bad intelligence. The West clearly has an interest in keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. But Washington and its allies are far from a consensus on Iran, and further apart still on war-gaming the consequences of a pre-emptive strike. The United States has spent a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan cleaning up the unanticipated damage from anti-Western extremism. It should not lightly seek out a third front in a much broader war, and it can't let its close relationship with Israel cloud its judgment.
Congressional hawks and the leading Republican presidential candidates act irresponsibly by mocking diplomacy and playing down the danger of escalation that a pre-emptive strike would inevitably bring. Netanyahu is jumping the gun by making a case for urgency; the issue is not whether to accept a nuclear Iran but what steps best prevent that outcome short of military action. Iran is sending mixed messages again about its willingness to open its nuclear facilities, but it's clear the tougher sanctions on its oil industry and on the ability of its central bank to manage the economy are taking hold. Obama can best maintain the pressure by keeping the allies together — and letting Israel know the United States does not support a pre-emptive military strike based on questionable intelligence.