Politics & Policy

Obama, Carter, and the Missing Words on Iran

Our current president’s rhetoric on Iran doesn’t even stand up to Jimmy Carter’s.

American interests and allies in the Persian Gulf are threatened. What’s needed is a clear and tough statement right from the top, so the president starts making speeches. What does he say?

That depends on whether it’s Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Barack Obama in 2012. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a lot tougher.

Nineteen-seventy-nine had been a year of American setbacks around the globe. Before the year began, Cuban troops were already roaming Angola, and a pro-Communist regime ruled Ethiopia. In 1979 the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua, a coup put leftists in charge in Grenada, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Shah left Iran in January, and in November mobs captured the U.S. Embassy and took more than 60 American hostages. All this was a shock to Carter and his followers, who had come to office seeking to junk the perceived hard line of the Nixon and Ford administrations. In January 1977, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young had said the Cubans were a “force for stability” in Angola. In May of that year, President Carter had criticized the “intellectual and moral poverty” of our past policies and said, “we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism” that had previously distorted our foreign affairs.

In response to the terrible events of 1979, Carter changed his tune. In his January 1980 State of the Union address, Carter began on an ominous note: “The 1980s have been born in turmoil, strife, and change. . . . At this time in Iran, 50 Americans are still held captive, innocent victims of terrorism and anarchy. Also at this moment, massive Soviet troops are attempting to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan.”

Carter then assessed the threat: “Soviet military forces [are] close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”

And then he stated what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

President Obama’s statements do not meet these standards. Like Carter, he attempted in his early stance to move away from the policies of his predecessor — especially when it came to Iran. Even before being inaugurated, Obama said in January 2009 that “we are going to have to take a new approach” to Iran; he said he believed “that engagement is the place to start,” meaning “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk.” Marking the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis in November 2009, Obama said that “the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.” He sent two secret letters to Ayatollah Khamenei in 2009, and in August 2010 was still “talking engagement with Iran.”

But three years of seeking engagement have manifestly failed. Obama has admitted that his offers of dialogue were “quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime.” The IAEA reports that “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation” and has “expressed its deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions.”

So like President Carter, Obama faces a world that is not what he had hoped for in his early days. But his rhetorical response has been markedly weaker than Carter’s. During Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2012 visit to the White House, Obama said the following:

We all know that it’s unacceptable from Israel’s perspective to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for the destruction of Israel. But . . . it is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. . . . And as I emphasized, even as we will continue on the diplomatic front, we will continue to tighten pressure when it comes to sanctions, I reserve all options, and my policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. . . . When I say all options are at the table, I mean it.

At the Holocaust Museum in April, Obama said, “I will always be there for Israel,” which is too ambiguous to have any real meaning. Then he added that “when faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

To state that we “will do everything in our power” is better than “all options are on the table,” for it is in the active voice. Still, these assertions lack the lucidity and strength that characterized Carter’s “will be repelled by any means necessary including military force.” Contrast Obama: Iranian nukes are “unacceptable” for Israel but apparently not for us; for us, it’s “profoundly in our interest” to prevent Iranian nukes; thus, Obama’s “policy is prevention” and he “reserves all options.” Given that it is also “profoundly in our interest” to eliminate world hunger or prevent mass killing in Syria, Obama could say “my policy is prevention” there too. But having options “on the table” and a “policy” aimed at something is quite different from being absolutely determined to stop it. The problem with the new formulation of “everything in our power” is that it includes too much: Would he use nuclear weapons? Assassinate Khamenei? Invade Iran? We will not actually do “everything in our power,” so the phrase is inscrutable. Precisely what Obama intends to do remains vague. Moreover, Carter was clear that an “attempt” to gain control of the Gulf region would provoke American action — while Obama seems to accept that Iran might reach a nuclear “capability” and warns only against actual Iranian possession of nuclear weapons. This is no Carter Doctrine. 

On May 8, Vice President Biden took a harder line — “We will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuke by whatever means necessary, period” — but his words only underscore Obama’s refusal to say the same.

It’s striking that when, just two days earlier, Biden went further than Obama ever had on same-sex marriage, Obama quickly changed his position to the one Biden had taken. That did not happen when it came to Iran. Dancing around the issue, Obama has never been willing to rise even to his vice president’s level of clarity, or say, paraphrasing President Carter, “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon while I am president; I will prevent it by any means necessary including military force.”

Thus we are left longing for the comparative clarity and toughness of Carter foreign policy. The only people comforted by this probably live in Tehran.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and deputy national-security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


The Latest