John Hughes

Obama's worst nightmare: an election-year nuclear ploy by Iran

Obama should send a message to Iran that he would react strongly in the event of an election-eve Iranian nuclear surprise. That way, he keeps his options open and Iran on notice.

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What would be the mother of all nightmares for Barack Obama before next year’s presidential election? A nuclear-armed Iran.

President Obama has declared he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. But his options are limited.

A strike against Iran’s nuclear installations? That would mean starting another war in the midst of the US election campaign. Unlikely.

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Dissuade Israel from striking Iran – an attack that would necessarily involve US moral and practical support during campaign season? For Israel, a nuclear-armed Tehran is a death sentence. So reining in Israel is also unlikely.

Accepting the reality of an Iran with nuclear weapons, but publicly warning Tehran against using them? Possible, but dangerously weak-looking for a president up for reelection who promised not to let this happen.

I hope someone in the White House is working on this. I hope Iran is not able to do it.

Iran may have overcome the problem of the “Stuxnet worm,” planted, probably by Israel, to cause its uranium-enriching centrifuges to run wild. Iranian nuclear scientists may have substantially accelerated their ability to make a type of nuclear fuel enabling them to produce bomb-grade material in a hurry. William Hague, the British foreign minister, speculated recently that when Iran has accumulated enough uranium enriched to the 20 percent level, it would take “only two or three months to convert this into weapons-grade material.”

What better time for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon than the middle of the US presidential campaign, when the American president is hobbled in his options?

Could Iran be so foolishly provocative? Reason would say no. But can we count on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Mad Hatter of Iranian politics, currently embroiled in a shoving match with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for power, to be rational?

Endless American and European negotiations with Iran to halt its suspected race to acquire nuclear weapons have gone nowhere. Tougher sanctions have caused some Iranian discomfort but no cessation of nuclear development.

Russia has proposed a new approach, but it involves no tougher sanctions and is unlikely to be fruitful. Russia has major economic interests in Iran. Indeed, the Russian plan curtails sanctions to reward Iran if it addresses international concerns about its nuclear program.

For a regime that seeks to impose its will on the Islamic world, Iran’s leaders must be in a calculating mode. Iran is a lingering autocracy in the midst of upheaval in the Arab world. It is estranged from many of its own people, whose protest Green Movement may be dormant but not dead.

Syria, its most important ally, may be lost as a platform for projecting support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Iran is reportedly helping Syria repress social media networks and put down opposition demonstrations, but the outcome is uncertain.

As it takes stock of its role in the Islamic world, the Iranian regime must ponder how its friends and enemies in the region would react to its possession of nuclear weaponry. Saudi Arabia would be appalled and probably seek nuclear weapons itself. Syria, which has sought to develop a nuclear program, would presumably laud Iran as long as Bashar al-Assad’s regime stays in control. An unfortunate consequence could be nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

Although many Muslims deplore much about the Iranian regime, a surprising number, both inside and outside Iran, might laud a nuclear breakthrough. I remember how many strongly anticommunist Chinese throughout Southeast Asia celebrated when Communist China joined the nuclear-weapons club. They were not celebrating communism. They were celebrating Chinese prowess.

Some Muslims might react similarly.

With the exception of his gutsy decision to take out Osama bin Laden, Obama – fairly or unfairly – has gained a reputation for being weak-kneed in foreign affairs. He should send a confidential message to Iran’s leaders that he would react strongly in the event of an election-eve Iranian nuclear surprise. That way, he keeps his options open and Iran on notice.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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