- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The government of Iran, much like many across the Middle East, believes that the Obama administration is so consumed with a desire to undo the wrongs of the Bush era and get out from under the costs of two difficult, hard-to-justify wars in the region that it would never intervene against them militarily. Iranian leaders seem to believe that the United States would not risk another war in the region just to stop their development of nuclear weapons.
The government of Israel, also worried that its number one ally has lost its appetite for complex entanglements in the region, seems to think that by playing the Iran card it can goad the U.S. into action that will restore the bonds between the two nations. Israeli leaders believe that they can translate their perception of Iran as an existential threat against them and a brazen, rising regional hegemon into a new renewed U.S. commitment to the region and closer ties with Israel.
Both are wrong.
According to the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, which has an extraordinary package of stories on the growing Iran risk and the escalation of that risk associated with an upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that will reveal game-changing progress by Iran in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons capabilities, even America’s closest allies in Britain believe "President Obama has a big decision to make in the coming months because he won’t want to do anything just before an election." Wrong.
Here in the U.S., analysts believe that Obama would not risk being drawn into a war in the region or the upheaval a series of attacks might cause. Even though tensions are definitely rising and those familiar with the IAEA report that will be circulated next week say, "It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance," there is a sense that Obama won’t pull the trigger. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour was quoted by the Guardian as saying, "A U.S. military attack on Iran is not going to happen during Obama’s presidency. If you’re Obama, and your priority is to resuscitate the American economy and decrease the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, bombing Iran would defeat those two objectives. Oil prices would skyrocket." While an attack is no sure thing yet, the analysis is wrong.
Certainly no one in the Obama Administration is eager to launch an attack on Iran. Taking steps that would risk being drawn into another war or that might damage the global economy further or could distract from the world at home would be vigorously opposed by several of the President’s most senior advisors, and he undoubtedly would be deeply divided on the issue himself.
But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama’s strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won’t. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area … and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.
As a consequence, the President and his advisors are acutely aware of the Iran issue. But their concerns go much deeper. The President and his national security leadership are deeply worried about the potential consequences associated with an Iranian nuclear breakthrough. It would likely trigger an arms race in the region at a time of considerable instability. It would immediately ratchet up tensions between Iran and Israel … but also between Iran and its historic enemies in the Gulf. It would both raise Iran’s perceived clout and underscore the absence of a counterweight either from the U.S., the West, or the international community at large.
While an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities almost certainly would produce a spike in oil prices, those prices would stabilize if the attacks were successful and did not produce a protracted war. Further, with the world economy in a slump, prices are feeling less upward pressure anyway these days. However, if Iran gained nuclear weapons, it might trigger a kind of uncertainty that would be protracted and would have a longer-term effect on oil prices.
The British assumption that the President would not take this action close to the election is mistaken on two levels. First, from the most cynical perspective possible, a strong action right before the election in response to a genuine threat after an extended effort to pursue more peaceful options to resolving the issue might well work very well for the President politically. The American people’s reaction to an attack at any time is likely to give the President the benefit of the doubt. That said, it would be a mistake to think this President would make such a cynical analysis. Should he act on an issue like this, he will do so without making any political calculus. He’s a politician to be sure. But on national security matters he has grown both increasingly self-confident and proven himself to be exceptionally disciplined. Indeed, the calculus as to what he might do needs to factor in that he has achieved some success taken strong military actions of a focused nature. The "no more Middle East wars" notion went out the window with Libya. The "Obama is timid on these matters" thesis was actually silently put to an early death when the President, just in office, ordered the ultimately successful effort to eliminate Osama bin Laden.
Finally, the Israelis are wrong if they think that U.S. cooperation on this issue will restore the bond between the two nations. They may work side-by-side on this as they did on the Stuxnet intervention. They share close ties. But so long as Israel pursues settlements and other policies that inflame the Palestinian situation and make a solution less likely, this administration will be more divided internally in its views on Israel than its public statements may suggest. Further, the reality is that history is moving against the Israelis. Not only are America’s strategic priorities shifting — the end of the Cold War and the War on Terror were both blows to the "indispensability" of Israel to the U.S. — but other countries, like China and India, are gaining more influence in the region as they become more important consumers of the region’s oil. And they view the Israeli-Palestinian issue as an irritant, a risk to their interests and a matter that needs to be disposed of, one way or another, whichever serves their ultimate goal of stable, cheap supplies of energy. In fact, paradoxically, it is probably a nuclear Iran that stands the best chance of keeping Israel more relevant to America.
None of this means America will act. But it would be a mistake to bet against it or to consider U.S. threats to be mere posturing.