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Obama is still bluffing on Iran

Obama is still bluffing on IranAn unexpected shadow was cast over President Obama’s swing through Southeast Asia last week by the fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.  The diversion is interpreted by some as a sign of how the combustibility of the Middle East will undercut Washington’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” toward Asia.  As one commentator artfully puts it,

“Having [Secretary of State] Clinton fly directly from Asia to the fires in the Middle East reminds Asia that the conflict in Gaza and Middle East strife in general is like a jealous lover, always calling the U.S. high-level political focus away from Asia.”

This view is underscored in today’s Wall Street Journal, where columnist Gerald F. Seib writes that problems with Tehran will disrupt Mr. Obama’s entire second term agenda.  In his view, the intrusion on the presidential trip is “an apt metaphor for how hard it will be to execute the pivot toward Asia when Iran and the Islamists it inspires have the ability to create crises elsewhere.”

As many analysts see it, the monkey wrench Tehran wields is about to become a whole lot bigger in the months ahead as the showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions reaches a climax.  True, the urgency of the impasse has slackened a bit in recent weeks, as Israel’s threat of unilateral military action recedes amid the gearing up of various diplomatic initiatives (here and here.)

But as the unprecedented attack earlier this month by Iranian aircraft upon an U.S. surveillance drone over the heavily-militarized Persian Gulf demonstrates, the underlying standoff remains fraught.  Nor are any of diplomatic efforts now stirring likely to bear fruit soon given the power struggles in Tehran.  And with the International Atomic Energy Agency now reporting that Iran is now set to ramp up its production of fissile material, the volatile relationship between Washington and Tehran will be at the top of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy agenda in his second term.

Henry Kissinger, for instance, warns that “the most urgent decision facing the president is how to stop Iran from pursuing a military nuclear program” while David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent, counsels that “Iran poses the biggest risk of war” among the world’s problems lining up for the White House’s attention.  The Christian Science Monitor’s diplomatic writer likewise opines that Obama “may have just a few short months to avoid another war in the Middle East.”

For his part, the president has kept up his tough talk on Iran, insisting that he is prepared, if necessary, to use military force to stop the country’s atomic ambitions.  Just a month ago, at his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney, he declared “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”  Vice President Joe Biden similarly promised in his election debate with Paul Ryan that “We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon.”  Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term, insists that the president would “absolutely” resort to war if the diplomatic option fails.  Michael Crowley at Time magazine concurs, describing Obama as “entirely prepared for war with Iran.”

I beg to differ.  In a post earlier this year, I argued that the president is more likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli rather than resort to arms to prevent it.  My reasoning was two-fold: First, as the depressing track record with North Korea over the last two decades demonstrates, it is exceedingly difficult for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, especially if it located in a strategic part of the world, has powerful patrons, and is able to inflict retribution on important U.S. interests in the region.

A second reason is more specific to this White House: The Obama administration’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action has always an air of unreality.  After all, as I wrote earlier, “a president determined to wind down George Bush’s wars in the Greater Middle East is quite unlikely to initiate a third one.”  In the seven months since I first aired the argument, I have become more convinced of the rightness of this judgment.

Consider, for instance, how much of the president’s re-election campaign was based on winding down the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which he had termed a few years earlier as “the war we need to win.”  Indeed, even while he was pledging toughness in his foreign policy debate with his Republican challenger, Mr. Obama also repeatedly drove home how he ended the Iraq war.  He also emphasized that his real focus is on the domestic front: “I think we all recognize we got to do some nation building here at home.”  His regular declarations about how that “the tide of war is receding” – a theme trumpeted in the 2012 Democratic National Platform – serve to underscore this point.

These considerations help explain the administration’s cautious approach toward the civil wars in Libya and Syria.  Indeed, in a profile by Michael Lewis in the October issue of Vanity Fair, the president explains that last year’s limited Libyan intervention was a “51-49 decision”  because he feared the political narrative of “how a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another.”  Given the likely conflagration resulting from a military strike on Iran, it is easy to see how this deterrent effect will be so much greater when it comes to Tehran.

Noteworthy, too, is how the Pentagon leadership is pouring cold water on the military option. Before his retirement last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the U.S. armed forces are “exhausted” and pointedly cautioned against launching any new conflicts in the Middle East.  He picked up this theme again last month, stating that “The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.”

Of course, conflict with Iran could still come about inadvertently through local encounters that rapidly spin out of control.  The attack on the U.S. drone, for example, was carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is more provocative than the country’s regular military.  The Corps operates fast attack craft that have in the past harassed U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf as well as seized a British Royal Navy party in early 2007 off the Iran-Iraq coast.  It also was implicated in last year’s foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington along with a string of other attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests elsewhere.  (For more background, see here.)  Alternatively, a desperate Israel could decide to launch a unilateral military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities that then sparks a broader conflict and drags the United States in.

The volatility of the situation is such that these scenarios cannot be ruled out.  But when it comes to embarking upon a premeditated military action of his own, my bet is that Mr. Obama will blink.

This commentary was originally posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.