A question I'm frequently asked -- several times a week during periods when the Barack Obama administration is especially focused on achieving a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis -- goes something like this: "Do you still believe that there are circumstances in which President Obama would use military force to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, given that [choose one, or more] he didn't enforce his own chemical weapons red line on Syria; he's so eager for any sort of substantial achievement in the Middle East that he's ready to make a bad deal with the Iranians; he's abandoning the U.S.'s Sunni and Jewish allies in the Middle East in favor of Iran's Shia; he is himself secretly a Shia, through a distant relative on his mother's side?"
The answer is, yes, I still believe that there are circumstances in which Obama would use force to stop Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon.
It's no secret that he prefers a diplomatic solution (one brought about by a crippling sanctions regime he orchestrated with significant help from Congress) to this problem. It is also no secret that he believes a military strike might have unintended consequences that could actually lead to a redoubling of the Iranian effort to cross the nuclear finish line. But there are certainly circumstances -- two immediately come to mind -- in which I think he would use force to prevent the Middle East from falling into a destructive spiral of nuclear proliferation.
First, if Iran were discovered to have built, or be building, a hidden enrichment facility, this would likely trigger a military response from the U.S. This is not an implausible scenario: Iran has already built two secret nuclear facilities -- subsequently discovered by Iranian dissidents and by the West -- at Natanz and at Fordow. The discovery of these facilities led to heightened sanctions, but not to military action.
At this late stage, though, particularly when Iran has promised to negotiate in good faith, the discovery of a third such facility would prove once and for all that the regime is intent on sneaking across the nuclear finish line and would most likely force an Obama response. I don't think it's probable that Iran is building a large-scale secret uranium enrichment facility inside a mountain, as it succeeded in doing at the Fordow site, near Qom. The regime understands that the discovery of a facility could be catastrophic. But it's within the realm of possibility.
Second, like Gary Samore, Obama's former Iran nuclear specialist, I think it is more likely that the regime would try to sneak across the finish line than make an overt dash for it. An overt dash would mean the expulsion of international weapons inspectors and a fairly obvious push to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. Iran, at this moment, could do this in a fairly short period of time, but I think initiating this dash would also trigger an immediate Obama response.
Obama will probably not face either of these scenarios. The Iranian regime is most likely too smart to provoke him, either by sneaking around or breaking out. The goal of the regime continues to be to escape the burden of sanctions while maintaining the infrastructure of a nuclear program. However, if the regime felt that it could push toward the nuclear threshold without military consequence, it might be more tempted to do so. It is not making that push for a reason.
Much of the world has decided -- based on Obama's last- minute decision not to launch attacks on Bashar al-Assad's forces in response to the widespread use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians -- that there is no way Obama would use force against Iran's weapons of mass destruction facilities. This is an unfortunate extrapolation and is apparently one that the Iranians have not made.
Samore, who was the most militant White House official on the subject of Iranian intentions, thinks the regime has a better understanding of Obama than some of his domestic critics do. "I haven't seen the Iranians draw the conclusion from the Syria episode that they believe they can do anything," he told me. "They haven't advanced their nuclear program. They've pulled it back." Samore believes that the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is "trying to avoid actions that he thinks would trigger an American attack. He can reasonably anticipate, for instance, that kicking out the inspectors would dramatically increase the risk of U.S. attacks."
Just this week, the United Nations atomic energy agency reported that Iran's stockpile of uranium gas enriched to 20 percent purity has decreased in size dramatically for the first time in four years. This does not suggest that the Iranians have suddenly decided to embrace comprehensive denuclearization. But it does mean, as Samore suggests, that the regime has a reasonable understanding of Obama's "red lines."
Like many people, I wish that Obama had been tougher, earlier, on the Assad regime. But it's a mistake to assume that because he would not act against one threat he won't act against another -- particularly one he has defined as the most important national security challenge facing the U.S.
Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs for Bloomberg View.