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Is Obama weak on Iran? GOP sees hot issue in crisis over nuclear program.

The growing international crisis over Iran's nuclear program and Americans' preference that US military action be avoided if possible presents an extra challenge to Obama's reelection efforts.

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Despite the Republicans’ nipping at Obama’s heels over Iran, the administration is likely to follow its two-track, “carrots and sticks” approach on the issue, both officials and expert say, at least over the coming weeks and months.

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Obama signed legislation in December that significantly strengthens economic sanctions on Iran by establishing punitive measures against countries that by the middle of this year are still going through Iran’s central bank to purchase Iranian oil. The law has spurred US allies like Japan and South Korea to search for alternatives to Iranian oil, but it also potentially puts Obama in the uncomfortable position, come June, of either punishing close allies or resorting to waivers that could hurt his “tough on national security” image.

The European Union is expected to approve an embargo on Iranian oil later this month, a surprisingly tough move for the Europeans that some experts believe is likely to prompt Iran to return to the negotiating table with world powers over its nuclear program.

Despite increasingly frequent talk in Washington in recent weeks of the growing likelihood of US military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites at some point this year, the CFR’s Takeyh says, “I think we are on the threshold, not of war, but of diplomacy.”

US and European economic measures against Iran are likely to lead to another stab at talks in March or April between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France, and Britain) and Germany, the so-called P5+1 group, he says.

But Takeyh adds that, as in the past, Iran is likely to continue to make progress in its nuclear program while any talks go on – and that could put the US and Iran on a dangerous collision course just as the US presidential campaign reaches its last critical lap in the fall.

Matthew Kroenig, another CFR expert who was a special adviser on Iran at the Pentagon last year, says some nuclear experts argue that at its current rate of 20 percent uranium enrichment, Iran by the end of the year might need no more than a month to “dash” to build a bomb, once it decided to do so.

Other experts scoff at such a timeline, but the point is that conditions are likely to be such that a debate over such claims could occur at the crescendo of what Greenberg predicts will be a “50-50” election.

For now, most sources close to the administration insist that taking  military action against Iran, with all the unpredictable consequences that could entail, is the last thing Obama wants.

But CFR’s Mr. Kroenig, who favors a US (and pointedly not an Israeli) strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities as the “less bad” option when compared to Iran getting the bomb, says he sees two things happening in the administration.

First, senior officials are “coming around to the view” that the consequences of striking Iran would be less damaging than previously assumed, he says; and second, he says senior officials are increasingly “convinced that President Obama would use force” to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Whether or not that happens, Iran will be a factor in the 2012 presidential campaign.

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