Iran is back in the news again: bungled attempt to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US on American territory, IAEA’s upcoming report which is expected to detail how the Islamic Republic is working toward a nuclear weapon’s program, President Ahmadinejad’s growing feud with the Supreme Leader, and of course Iran’s support for the Bashir regime’s crackdown on it revolting citizens in Iran. David Sanger of the New York Times produced a nice synopsis of the Obama administration’s current strategy toward Iran, detailing American efforts to impede its progress toward going nuclear:
Iran may be the most challenging test of the Obama administration’s focus on new, cheap technologies that could avoid expensive boots on the ground; drones are the most obvious, cyberweapons the least discussed. It does not quite add up to a new Obama Doctrine, but the methods are defining a new era of nearly constant confrontation and containment. Drones are part of a tactic to keep America’s adversaries off balance and preoccupied with defending themselves. And in the past two and a half years, they have been used more aggressively than ever. There are now five or six secret American drone bases around the world. Some recently discovered new computer worms suggest that a new, improved Stuxnet 2.0 may be in the works for Iran.
Basically, anything that doesn’t involve an actual American (or Israeli) military strike or real sanctions on Iran’s oil industry. Sanger also quickly layouts what a parallel containment strategy for Iran might look like:
The early elements of it are obvious: the antimissile batteries that the United States has spent billions of dollars installing on the territory of Arab allies, and a new Pentagon plan to put more ships and antimissile batteries into the Persian Gulf, in cooperation with six Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
It seems to have reached conventional wisdom that the Obama administration has ruled out any serious military action to halt an Iranian nuclear reality, but analyst David Rothkopf thinks that may be naive:
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.
Walter Russell Mead has also made this argument, though more persuasively. I wouldn’t be so quick to think that Obama would make such a move. Yes, he has shown a willingness to use violent force to kill terrorist enemies and participated in the aerial bombing of Qadafhi’s regime in Libya, but an attack on Iran would be a whole other animal. I believe Obama is still a firm believer in international institutions and law and would loathe the idea of going it alone (albeit with Israel) as there is little chance a major attack would be approved in the Security Council. Attacking Iran would also open up a plethora of unknowns (oil prices, counter attacks, etc.) that I don’t think the President wants to bring to the 2012 election. It would also undermine the benefits Obama will receive from his base by getting all US troops out of Iraq. However, Rothkopf and Mead should be applauded for going against the conventional wisdom.
In any case, after becoming a nearly forgotten topic amongst all of our economic dull drums, the Iran question is back in the news and obviously worth watching.