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Bibi and the scarlet letter


Behold, my fellow citizens, he who wreaks havoc!

He who snubs our president and threatens Middle East peace, who seeks not negotiation, only destruction!

This man — no, this menace—the pariah among all peace-loving people, he who pushes America back into deadly conflict in a region that already hates us — does not deserve your empathy.

Show no mercy in your shaming and blaming of this brazen fiend. Let only anger flood your ears as you staple the scarlet letter upon that horrid man’s chest, the one they call Bibi Netanyahu…

Such is the chorus of blame emanating from Washington and the news media toward Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Everyone from the New York Times to Fox News has derided Netanyahu for accepting John Boehner’s invitation to call for tougher Iran sanctions in front of a joint session of the U.S. Congress, in defiance of the White House.

As relieving as it may feel to chide Netanyahu for playing politics, the blame game against the Israeli prime minister will neither deflate nor ameliorate the quagmire we face in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as doing so fails to address the underlying causes of our regional allies’ concerns.

Netanyahu’s concerns are well founded. A nuclear-armed Iran poses a great threat to American interests and stability in the Middle East. Even as ISIS beheads journalists and wages bloody war in Iraq and Syria, the prospect of an armed Iran could shift the balance of power in the already precarious region, providing the fundamentalist state with a nuclear deterrent to hide behind while expanding its alleged state-sponsored terrorism.

Iran has long straddled the line between civilian nuclear use and proliferation, pursuing breakout capacity via its once-secret and still-bunkered uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and its heavy water reactor at Arak. Those discoveries, in combination with revelations about a secret enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom in 2009, further aroused suspicions in the international community and engendered the latest series of crippling sanctions now placed on Iran.

Along with the election of a comparatively moderate Iranian President Rouhani, those sanctions provide the foundation upon which President Obama and various other major powers have begun negotiations with Iran.

But, American allies are understandably concerned that Obama might be gun-shy in light of his flubbed red lines on Syria. They worry that he will not stand by his commitment to prevent Iran’s accession to the nuclear powers list.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that he intends to back that commitment with military force, but to many, his claims just don’t seem credible. As Aaron David Miller writes in Foreign Policy, Jerusalem and Riyadh “worry for a living” about the fear of rising Iranian power, and are not convinced that America will act when the time has come to back up its threats.

The perception of a credibility gap is the reason that our allies are worried. And perhaps more worrisome to them than Obama’s perceived unwillingness to attack Iran is his perceived willingness to settle for less than a deal that will safeguard against an Iranian nuclear breakout.

Such a deal would afford Tehran all the advantages of international engagement, while maintaining its capacity to go nuclear when it’s good and ready. Saudi Arabia might then respond by covertly purchasing nuclear weapons from ally Pakistan or other illicit proliferation rings, should it lose faith in America’s umbrella deterrent.

While Netanyahu’s tenuous political standing and upcoming elections are likely the catalysts for his divisive address to Congress again, in defiance of Obama blaming the pain away will not resolve our allies’ qualms. In fact, it is not unlikely that Netanyahu will win the coming Israeli elections and retain his leadership position in the Israeli government.

Thus, even as it levies its veto against increased sanctions at this time, the Obama Administration must continue to reaffirm its stance that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and that it is not afraid to increase sanctions or even bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities should negotiations prove fruitless.

On a broader note, the blame game is an attractive one. It coalesces disparate groups against perceived adversaries who act contrary to our interests or beliefs. It has its time and place, but can also distract from the underlying issues that truly affect global change.

Even we Stanford students are not immune to its appeal. A candid look at the ongoing attempt to convince Stanford to divest from companies operating in Israel reveals a similar proclivity to supplant serious deliberation over the underlying causes of conflict with a hasty assignment of blame to one side or another. We call out those things we don’t like, but we are also afraid or unwilling to engage with them in a meaningful way.

Perhaps it is naïve to expect that we could do better, but we must will it nonetheless. Replacing the scarlet letter with intent contemplation is the first step on that path.

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ 

Aaron Zelinger Gordon likes to argue with anybody who can bear it—friends, strangers, other Daily columnists, and himself. As such, a friend once berated him for refusing to believe that it's not butter. He appreciates few things more than astutely cited Will Ferrell quotes, dance floor shenanigans, oreo milkshakes, and foreign policy debates. When not studying Symbolic Systems and Economics, he can be found procrastinating in the pool, writing poetry, and learning languages other than his native Spanish and English. Contact him for coffee at zelinger 'at' stanford dot edu.