The Iran pot bubbles. Will it cook Obama?

A new IAEA report claims Iran has worked on a nuclear weapon, a program only temporarily set back by 'Stuxnet.' Now, Israel ponders a military strike. What's next – more sanctions, a call for regime change, even war? These questions bear down on Obama in an election year.

President Obama has suddenly been confronted by a bubbling challenge from Iran he almost certainly would have preferred to avoid during a presidential election year.

Like President George W. Bush before him, he pledged to block Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

But his offer to talk with Iran’s leadership was rebuffed. Economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States – in cooperation with other nations – have made life more uncomfortable for individuals in Iran but have not significantly hobbled the nuclear program. 

The “Stuxnet” computer worm, believed to be a collaboration between US and Israeli intelligence services, has only temporarily set back Iranian nuclear scientists. Mysterious physical attacks on some Iranian nuclear scientists – at least one of which was fatal – have not thwarted the nuclear development either.

Now the inspectors of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency are convinced that Iran has been working on a nuclear weapon. Iran was helped by experts from Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia. Its insistence that its pursuit of nuclear energy has been for purely peaceful purposes is unconvincing.

As a result, there are rumblings that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is mulling an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities without advance warning to Israel’s close American ally. Such a strike could trigger war in the Middle East and would hardly leave the US untouched. Iran responded this week by saying it would meet an attack with "a strong slap and an iron fist."

Frustrated by Iran’s apparent pursuit of nuclear weaponry, the Obama administration reportedly will use the new UN report to try to ratchet up economic and diplomatic pressure against Iran. Russia and China, both of which have economic interests in Iran, have been weak sisters so far in the international lineup imposing sanctions against Tehran. Russia flat out refused new sanctions this week.

After four rounds of UN sanctions, what's left as a last big target is Iranian oil. But Iran's oil exports are among the biggest of the OPEC nations. Cutting off that revenue stream would certainly hurt Iran, but it would also raise world oil prices at a time when economies are still fragile and threatened by the European debt crisis. China gets about 10 percent of its fuel from Iran.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has shied away from calling for actual regime change in Tehran, hoping instead that sanctions would persuade the present unpalatable regime to moderate. Such hopes remain unfulfilled.

Some critics inside and outside Iran fault the administration for not more vigorously supporting the Iranian “Green Movement,” whose members have suffered beatings and imprisonment in protest of government policies. However, other Iranians warn against overt American support that could enable the regime to dismiss the protests as US-inspired and managed.

In a recent radio interview with BBC Persia beamed to Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed to harden the US position somewhat when she declared that Iran was “morphing into a military dictatorship” and she would welcome “anything that can be done from within Iran to send a message to the regime that it is important to change behavior.” 

She added: “I cannot believe that there aren’t tens of thousands of educated, smart, influential Iranians who can’t begin to say: ‘Hey, we got to make some changes here. We need to look at how we are governing ourselves.’ ”

Ms. Clinton announced the pending launch of a “virtual embassy” on the Web in Tehran to encourage study in and travel to the US, bolstered by more visas for Iranian students. 

The UN warnings on Iran’s nuclear weaponry ambitions, and the threat of an Israeli preemptive strike, come at a time of internal tension in Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are in an increasingly public feud that could result in the eclipse or even elimination of the presidency. 

Clinton’s reference to a “morphing military dictatorship” could be related to the power of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its alleged involvement in a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador on American soil. 

Can tougher sanctions against Iran be effective? Is regime change now called for? Will a military strike take place? Will other Arab nations, fearful of Iran, seek nuclear weapons? These are questions the president had surely hoped would not arise in the midst of a close presidential election campaign.

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

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