The Obama Administration clearly doesn’t want to go to war with Iran and risk a disastrous conflagration in the Middle East with potentially devastating consequence for the world economy. But it also is unwilling or unable to engage in serious diplomacy with Tehran — or perhaps it simply recognizes the limited prospects for progress in such a venture given the political dynamics on both sides of the equation. Whatever the reason, the Administration is caught between two stools: It is under domestic political pressure to escalate the confrontation, with Republicans courting the pro-Israel vote by declaring their resolve to get tougher with Iran and branding Obama as feckless. Yet, the Pentagon — and also some high profile Israeli securocrats, such as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan — have made clear that the “military option” the Administration insists is still “on the table” would likely spark a disastrous regional war, and would at best delay Iraq’s progress by a year or two. (Western intelligence agencies currently concur that Iran’s leaders have not yet taken a decision to actually build nuclear weapons, even though they’re steadily accumulating the means to implement such a decision should it be made — both Dagan and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have warned that military strikes could prompt Iran to choose to build a nuclear deterrent.)
But hawkish voices, including the Israeli government, insist that a moment of crisis is approaching and the window of opportunity to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons capacity is closing.
The Administration insists that the sanctions it has painstakingly put in place at the U.N. and unilaterally among Western powers will provide the effective pressure necessary to persuade Iran to back down. Obama’s U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, said recently that sanctions were not an end in themselves but a means to buy time for a “diplomatic solution.” But if by diplomatic solution the Administration means Iran agreeing to Western demands, that may be wishful thinking. On the other hand, a diplomatic compromise that leaves the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons materiel in Iran’s hands will be a tough sell domestically — as well as with allies such as Israel and France. And that’s assuming such a compromise were currently feasible from the Iranian side, where election-year domestic politics also militate against concessions to the West.
The problem facing the Administration is that sanctions may not prove to be an alternative to war — or compromise — and its room to maneuver in an election year will be limited, even as the lack of diplomatic communication between the two sides, as the Pentagon has warned, raises the danger of misunderstandings that could lead to confrontation. The direction of the U.S.-Iran standoff in 2012 may, however, be determined by others: The Israelis insist that they may yet decide to take matters into their own hands by launching military strikes (technical limitations on Israel’s capacity to do the job notwithstanding); China, Russia, Turkey and others are resisting new sanctions and maintaining economic ties with Iran, placing themselves between Tehran and the Western powers and demanding dialogue. Iran’s key Arab rival, Saudi Arabia, is at once confronting Tehran’s allies across the region and also offering dialogue on the nuclear issue. With Obama Administration policy unlikely to provide a game changer in the coming year, the question is, will others force the issue?