Confronting Iran in a year of elections

The politics of soaring oil prices loom over any threat of military conflict in the Strait of Hormuz

A Democratic president running in a bitterly disputed presidential race faces a fateful national security decision: whether to approve an airstrike to thwart an adversary bent on becoming a nuclear-weapons state.

Conservative hawks deride the president as weak. In the West Wing, advisers debate the risks: a strike could lead to open conflict, but doing nothing would change the balance of power in a volatile, war-prone region.

The president was Lyndon B. Johnson, and less than three weeks before Election Day in 1964, the Chinese rendered the White House discussion moot by setting off their first nuclear test. “China will commit neither the error of adventurism, nor the error of capitulation,” the government of Mao Zedong told the world that morning, heralding the first Asian nation to get the bomb.

Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in the election anyway, after a campaign in which — oddly enough, given the attack being contemplated — he tarred the Arizona conservative as a warmonger in the infamous black-and-white “daisy” television spot, featuring a young girl counting the petals of a flower, unaware of impending nuclear doom.

Historical analogies are always dangerous when it comes to presidential elections and nuclear geopolitics, so comparisons to the Obama administration’s calculus in the escalating confrontation with Iran calls to mind the caution that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. The election-year nuclear brinkmanship game was tricky enough in the cold war; the Chinese test was partly a warning to the Soviet Union, and Washington had even considered inviting Moscow to join in any strike.

But think of the multipolar chess President Obama is now playing. Every country involved in the dispute over Iran’s possibly acquiring nuclear weapons is calculating how the American presidential election plays to its agenda. The politics of soaring oil prices loom over any threat of military conflict, even a brief skirmish in the Strait of Hormuz. And with global economic turmoil a reality and leadership changes possible or certain this year in the United States, Russia, China and France, the game gets even more complex.

Start with the Iranians themselves. They have studied China’s example, and the case of Pakistan, which faced severe economic sanctions — urged foremost by the United States — for its pursuit of the bomb. But in both cases, once those countries conducted a test, the world adjusted to the new reality. Less than a half century later, China is the world’s second largest economy, and no one messes with it. As soon as the Sept. 11 attacks happened, the sanctions against Pakistan disappeared; suddenly the United States cared about cooperation in hunting down Al Qaeda more than it cared about Pakistan’s dangerous export of bomb technology, including to Iran.

No one can get inside the head of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Takeyh notes that his pattern of behavior over the past decade has been to push the nuclear programme ahead “systematically but cautiously,” slowly raising the temperature but until now avoiding major crises. Several years ago the Western allies said Iran could not resume enriching uranium; it resumed. Then the “red line” was drawn around enriching at a much higher level of purity, which gets Iran closer to bomb-grade fuel. But Iran has been doing that for nearly two years now. And the latest violation, just two weeks ago, was beginning production in a deep underground facility that is far less vulnerable to bombing.

Crossing the line
That moves the calculus to Israel. It used to declare that it would never permit Iran to go past “the point of no return,” an ill-defined line beyond which Iran could rapidly produce a bomb. There’s continuing debate about where that line is, but former Israeli intelligence officials say Iran is long past it. Yet so far, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been constrained by the United States, which argues that cyberattacks, sabotage and sanctions have been more effective at slowing Iran’s program, without creating an international furor.

The outbreak of a public debate in Israel over whether to strike soon clearly shook the Obama administration. Under pressure from American officials, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said on Wednesday that a decision on a possible strike on Iran was “very far off.”

Netanyahu’s government may calculate that if Israel is going to attempt a strike, doing so during the presidential campaign, when it would have the sympathy of many American voters, is the only way to avoid a major backlash from Obama, with whom Netanyahu has a tense relationship. Elliott Abrams, President George W Bush’s hawkish Middle East adviser, wrote recently that if Israel attacked “Obama would be forced to back it and help Israel cope with the consequences. It might even help the president get re-elected if he ends up using force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and Israel safe.”

It might — or it might not. The Iranians know they have little to gain from a confrontation that spins out of control; they don’t want to take on the Fifth Fleet in the Strait of Hormuz. But threats, small attacks on refineries and harassment of shipping can send the price of oil soaring, with economic effects no leader wants in election season. Sure, Americans don’t want Iran to get the bomb. But are they willing to pay $6 a gallon to prevent it?

Instability scares the Chinese, too, but gives the Russians an opportunity. For years China resisted sanctions on Iran, since it buys so much Iranian oil. Now it sees that escalating sanctions are inevitable, so it is busy hedging its bets, looking for alternative sources (with help from the Obama administration) while delaying a crisis. “They are a little late to the game,” one of Obama’s aides said. “We have been telling them this was coming for two years now. But they are only now believing it.”

Russia is also looking to buy time, but as a significant oil producer, it benefits from a sustained crisis — as long as it stays at a low boil. The Russians have proposed a lengthy negotiating plan with Iran, one that would take years to complete. Washington sees it as a ploy that would drag out talks and give Iran time and political cover to get the bomb.
And then there are the Europeans and the Arab states. During the Bush administration they feared any tough sanctions, convinced that if they failed, President Bush would order a strike on Iran. They misread the politics in Washington; after invading Iraq, Bush was in no position to get into a conflict with another Middle Eastern country suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.

The United States has not purchased oil from Iran for many years, but Obama has stopped short of advocating a global total embargo, which could lead to confrontations at sea. The hard line taken by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been the surprise in the latest chapter in the long-running Iranian nuclear crisis. Their operating assumption is that if the economic cost is high enough, the supreme leader will fold. Few in Washington are persuaded, but most go along with the assumption because the more forceful alternatives are too unpleasant to contemplate.

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