The Audience War: US Rhetoric and the Iranian Nuclear Programme

Obama's declaratory policy on Iran involves a fine balancing act that is designed for multiple audiences: a recalcitrant Iranian regime, a domestic population about to go to the polls, and a jittery Middle Eastern region led by Israel. Though this strategy has thus far been successful, it carries notable risks for the Administration in the midst of a continuing standoff with Iran.

Domestic Arguments on the Iranian Nuclear Debate

Views from Israel

Views from the United States

Views from Iran


In the midst of mounting tensions, the Western public continuously looks to the Obama administration for indication of the trajectory of US policy on the Iranian nuclear programme. Nearly every major UK news outlet published either analysis or the full text of US President Barack Obama's March speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  His assertions that the US would keep 'all options on the table' to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran reverberated worldwide.

Several notable themes appear throughout the Obama administration's current rhetoric on its preferred approach to the Iranian nuclear programme. Motivated by drivers unique to US political circumstances in each instance (notably, the presidential election campaign), the thematic threads woven into the administration's discourse cater to its policy priorities regarding one or more audiences: the domestic population; US allies abroad; priority countries in the Iranian debate such as Russia and China; and Iran itself - specifically the regime.

Key narratives emerging from the Obama administration and from the audiences at which its messages are directed yield two important observations: the President is succeeding at crafting complicated declaratory policy, which must simultaneously satisfy a number of constituencies; and, the US is acutely aware of the effects of its own rhetoric on political and economic developments in Iran.

International unity in preventing a nuclear Iran

Existing international unity on the need to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran has featured in US policy statements from the outset of Obama's term in office. It serves an important purpose domestically and internationally: to remind those listening that the US is not approaching the Iranian nuclear programme as it approached Iraq in 2003. According to the administration, the 'world has spoken with one voice',[1] and even states reluctant to use the Security Council to address treaty non-compliance have cooperated in pressuring Iran. 'People predicted that Russia and China wouldn't join us to move toward pressure. They did. And in 2010 the UN Security Council overwhelmingly supported a comprehensive sanctions effort.'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reminded a February congressional hearing that 'intelligence does not show that [Iran has] made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.' Had the US adopted a more certain and questionable assessment of Iranian intentions - as was the case with Iraq - public attention would have been refocused on the intelligence. This would inevitably have detracted from the formation and maintenance of international unity in objective.

At the same time, this theme shows that common ground exists between the 'EU3+3' ahead of negotiations with Iran. Its reiteration has the potential to again transform the shared priority of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran into collaborative policy approaches to the issue. This point may be particularly salient if the forthcoming negotiations dissolve at the hands of the Iranians, as occurred in January 2011.

But like every declaratory policy, this theme has some restricting effect on future policy options. By restating present international unity in priorities, the Obama administration has made it more difficult to in the future justify taking action alone or with select allies, if it deemed doing so was in its national interest.

Sharpening choices for the Iranian regime

In concert with allies, Obama has also sought through words and actions to 'sharpen the choices' which face the Iranian regime. In essence, Tehran 'can fulfill its international obligations and reap the benefits of greater economic and political integration with countries around the world, or it can continue to defy its responsibilities and face even more pressure and isolation'.[2] Persistent recalcitrance on the part of Iran has been met with added US sanctions, constraining Iran's ability to earn hard currency for its oil exports and restricting national access to global finance. These efforts have the potential to make circumventing sanctions and pursuing a nuclear programme more difficult and costly for Iran than can be justified under either the pervasive 'enemy' or 'technological advancement' narratives of the Iranian regime. And with each new round of sanctions has come the reminder to the Iranian regime: there is still a clear choice. As Obama argued in his recent AIPAC speech, back diplomacy with pressure (which will take full force in summer with EU oil sanctions), and we may yet in fact see behavioural change on the part of Iran.

The portions of administration statements underscoring this theme are noteworthy for a second reason: they demonstrate careful US analysis of the effect of Western rhetoric on political and economic trends within Iran. According to Obama, matching Tehran's escalatory rhetoric benefits only the 'Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program'. It also feeds into the Iranian regime's efforts to convince its population that it is being unfairly vilified by the West and Israel, and 'we shouldn't be playing in to that'.[3] Iran's recent declaration that it is indigenously producing fuel rods and next generation centrifuges was dismissed by the White House as 'calibrated mostly for a domestic audience'.

Instead, the approach has been to create strong disincentives for Iran to continue defying its Security Council and IAEA obligations to cease enrichment and reprocessing. True to form, amidst Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and go ahead with planned missile tests, President Obama in December 2011 signed into law one of the toughest US sanctions rounds yet. His statement on the bill did not mention Iran at all.[4]

However, in taking this approach, the 'sharpening choices' theme has for some time stood almost in isolation within Obama's Iran policy. For a domestic audience attentive to Republican Party debates, where presidential candidates have articulated their favoured policy approaches on Iran with comparable force and urgency, Obama's strategy seems utterly passive. (Recall Mitt Romney's assertion that 'if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon') The presentation of clear choices for Tehran leaves the ball in the regime's court. And when it comes to the security of the US and its allies, that is a recipe for American public angst.  

Drawing (blurred) red lines

The need to shore up domestic support in an election year therefore offers a partial explanation for the articulation of 'red lines' by the administration in 2012.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flatly stated that the US 'will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon'. This affirmation strikes a careful balance between avoiding the 'loose talk of war' which profits Tehran, and the display of strength needed to allay domestic and allied fears of potential US inaction. It also gives Obama some flexibility. Neither the Non-Proliferation Treaty nor the Obama administration defines what constitutes development of a nuclear weapon. Further enrichment of uranium to 90 per cent, for instance, may be seen to be crossing the thin red line. Or it may not. Repetition of the concept of red lines nevertheless confirms to an American population increasingly convinced of Iranian nuclear weapons intent that the US will act if deemed necessary. And, as Obama assures, 'all options are on the table'.

The implication is not that military action would be pursued if Iran did ultimately step over that red line. Rather, the possibility would be considered alongside others. Red lines are therefore not the focal point of the President's message on Iran. Instead, the administration continues to emphasise that if concerted pressure is exerted on the Iranian regime, a diplomatic resolution of the international crisis of confidence is still possible. Indeed, if overt confrontation with Iran is avoided until after the US presidential election, Obama may feel less constrained in his decision-making by electoral politics.

However, this theme is deployed to multitask. Recognising that Iran may not yet have decided to build a bomb, the administration's red line also seeks to deter Tehran from taking additional steps in its nuclear programme. Active deterrence language has been largely absent from the administration's statements until recently. Its inclusion was likely catalysed by the November International Atomic Energy Agency report's public detailing of possible military dimensions to the Iranian nuclear programme, as well as the underground Fordow facility's operationalisation in December 2011. The Obama administration's flexible red line leaves the Iranian regime uncertain as to what actions would provoke a harsh and swift US response. Iranian decision makers may therefore be deterred from pursuing nuclear developments which bring it close to that line, fearing that their efforts may be interpreted by Washington as having crossed it.

However, risks associated with this approach should not be understated. If Iran in fact determines that the flexible red lines declared by Washington are calibrated towards its domestic audience and towards Israel, it may feel it can risk crossing them. Or, alternatively, with the inherent ambiguity surrounding the administration's definition of 'development of a nuclear weapon', Iran may unknowingly wander over the line.

Finally, the articulation of red lines is also intended to calm restless allies, particularly Israel. For Middle Eastern allies of the US, the intended message is clear: the US is committed to ensuring an Iranian nuclear weapon does not appear in their backyards. Israel should not feel it must take urgent militarily action; 'now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in'. Other countries in the Middle East need not pursue their own nuclear weapons as security guarantors; the US will not let Iran set off a regional proliferation cascade.

Commitment to allies

The Obama administration consistently reiterates its commitment to allies. Like the articulation of US intolerance of an Iranian nuclear weapon, this rhetorical trend is an attempt to turn down the growing drumbeat of war echoing from Israel. Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House, Obama said 'the United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security'. This theme supports stated red lines in mitigating against the possibility that allies such as Saudi Arabia will deem US support insufficient to guarantee their national security and will pursue their own nuclear capabilities.

A fine, if risky, balancing act

Perhaps more than any other world leader, Obama's statements on Iran have to address an array of audiences. Not only has he succeeded in doing this, but he has also done so whilst maintaining a pragmatic Iran policy, with diplomacy backed by pressure as the cornerstone.

In this particular instance, forming intelligent policy on the Iranian nuclear programme requires careful understanding of the domestic dynamics in that country. Obama has recognised that, as one of the primary international actors on this issue, what the US says echoes worldwide. And that includes in Iran, where a strong 'enemy' narrative has been promulgated since 1979, and where oil prices (driven up by exchanges of forceful rhetoric between Tehran and the West) fund forays into the nuclear field. Avoiding a situation where US words can benefit the Iranian regime is not a sign of weakness, but of sound policy-making.

Obama is keeping his declaratory policy moderate but increasing firmness, appeasing target audiences whilst attempting to deter Iran from taking further steps in its nuclear programme. In doing so, he will likely avoid having to make serious decisions until the current window of opportunity closes. Undoubtedly, the administration will hope that this window won't be slammed shut by sudden escalation before the presidential election in November.

However, his approach involves both risks and limitations. Iran may assess Obama's red line as insincere, wander too close and cross it. Moreover, the administration insists that the optimal course of action is to 'sharpen choices' by exerting unified pressure on the Iranian leadership. Frequent reiteration of this argument means a marked shift in policy would be extremely difficult to justify to the American people. Arguing for unilateral or coalition action would be similarly problematic after emphasising the need for international agreement and unity in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

In the minefield of rhetoric, Obama may have forged a safe path for the time being. However, with extremely high stakes - including possible military action, a nuclear-capable Iran, or an Iranian bomb - even the most carefully balanced approach is fragile.

Andrea Berger is a Research Analyst at RUSI.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



[1] Statement by the President on the Announcement of Additional Sanctions on Iran, Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, 21 November 2011.

[2] Statement by the President on the Announcement of Additional Sanctions on Iran, Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, 21 November 2011.

[3] 'The President on Iran: "The World is Watching"', The White House, 19 June 2009.

[4] 'Statement by the President on H.R. 1540', The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 31 December 2011


Andrea Berger

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