‘Assertive restraint’ needed to deal with Iran

The specter of a showdown with Iran over that country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a crisis of Iran’s own making. The nation has sought trouble, you might say, and at times is practically daring the world to do something about it. This country is too much like North Korea, and that is by no means a compliment.

So, what is needed by the U.S., Israel and other nations is a sense of “assertive restraint” — that is, sanctions and isolation, with stipulations for diplomatic progress, all coupled with the clear message that any aggressive action on Tehran’s part will be met with a swift, vigorous reaction.

This was the message that came from a flurry of activity on this side of the world over the past few days. On Sunday, President Obama delivered a speech before a pro-Israel group in which he spelled out a plan of aggressive diplomacy and sanctions, but also left open the door for military intervention. On Monday, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and affirmed that the U.S. “would always have Israel’s back.”

Carrying this mindset and this message forward will be the trick. Later on Monday, Netanyahu told the same pro-Israeli group that his nation has a right to defend itself, stressing that time is growing short and he would not “gamble with the security of the state of Israel.” He added, “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

Of course, Iran is probably hoping to provoke such a response, which would enflame the Muslim world and win the nation new allies that it cannot otherwise acquire.

It could also have serious economic repercussions across the world that may stall recovery processes that have struggled to find much traction since the Great Recession.

That’s why a preemptive strike by Israel, as has long been discussed, would be a mistake at this moment.

Iran is virtually a pariah nation with few friends, but since it has a lot of oil, it has, you might say, several international acquaintances. Still, Iran’s history of saber rattling has not generated trust among its fellow Middle Eastern nations.

A few weeks ago, some analysts who were surveying the possible paths of this crisis were even contemplating the remote possibility of an extraordinary, utterly (and otherwise) unlikely alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two nations whose only real common bond would be their deep opposition to Tehran. Neither wants to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, and both see Iran (somewhat like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq many years ago) as a reckless, unpredictable threat.

This complicated and literally combustible issue must be handled carefully and skillfully. Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and most everyone agrees it must never have one. But how to carry out this policy of containment must be determined and embraced. And obviously, it must be found quickly. Time is of the essence, and so is the stability of a very fragile section of the world.