Iran is undoubtedly Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy headache for this year’s presidential election. Having officially ended the campaign in Iraq, and having established a timetable to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, the last thing he wants is to get sucked into another conflict in the region.
But even if he doesn’t, the ongoing uncertainty over Iran’s nuclear program – and whether Israel will try a military strike – still risks pushing oil prices ever higher, threatening a double whammy of derailing the fragile U.S. economic recovery and infuriating Americans already concerned about rising prices at the gas pump (A U.S. president’s poll numbers have a tendency to be inversely proportional to gas prices).
Republicans, still seeing an opening to paint Obama as weak on national security (the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad last year and the administration’s increased use of drone strikes to target militants are apparently distant memories) have continued to crank up the pressure as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington this week.
According to leaked excerpts from a speech to be delivered by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the United States must be prepared to use overwhelming force against Iran.
“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” he planned to tell the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night .
There’s some pretty suggestive evidence that Iran is indeed seriously intent on pursuing a nuclear weapons program, though whether this walking, swimming and quacking program is really a duck or a very deliberate impersonation is unclear.
Certainly the International Atomic Energy Agency has some genuine concerns, which were outlined in its latest report late last month. The report is restricted, but the copy I’ve seen lays out some of the thinking behind the belief that there may be military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear work.
“The Agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, as explained in GOV/2011/65. Iran did not provide access to Parchin, as requested by the Agency during its two recent visits to Tehran, and no agreement was reached with Iran on a structured approach to resolving all outstanding issues in connection with Iran’s nuclear programme,” the report stated.
“The Annex to the Director General’s November 2011 report (GOV/2011/65) provided a detailed
analysis of the information available to the Agency indicating that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information, which comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that: prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing.
“In resolution 1929 (2010), the Security Council reaffirmed Iran’s obligations to take the steps required by the Board of Governors in its resolutions GOV/2006/14 and GOV/2009/82, and to cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.In its resolution GOV/2011/69 of 18 November 2011, the Board of Governors, inter alia, expressed its deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions.”
Israel, which has sounded increasingly like it doesn’t want to wait and find out, is said to be considering a strike as early as this spring. The question is whether it would go it alone, and how much notice it will give the U.S. if it finally decides to move.