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.

Mehdi Ghasemi/Iranian Students News Agency/AP
Beside a poster of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, mourners carry a flag draped coffin of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemistry expert and a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, who was killed last week, in his funeral ceremony, in Tehran, Iran. Rising international tensions 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.

Republicans who have been stumped by the high marks Barack Obama receives from the voting public on defense and national security issues believe they may have found the president’s weak spot: Iran.

At the same time, rising international tensions with Tehran over its nuclear program and the place it is likely to occupy in the year’s diplomatic agenda have some administration officials confiding that “this will be the year of Iran.”

Taken together, those two factors are likely to make Iran a standout foreign-policy issue in a presidential campaign otherwise dominated by jobs and the economy.

“The American people would really prefer that there not be any [military] action against Iran,” says Stanley Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster and political strategist. But at the same time, he notes, “close to a majority favors military action against Iran” if that’s what it takes to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Those ambiguous waters are what President Obama will be navigating as he confronts the growing Iran crisis even as he campaigns for reelection.

That ambiguity was on display Wednesday, as the White House denied an Iranian lawmaker’s claim that Mr. Obama recently proposed direct US-Iran talks to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

The Iranian official said the proposal for direct talks came in a letter in which Obama also warned that any move to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes up to one-fifth of the world’s oil, is a “red line” for the United States.

While administration officials denied that such a letter was sent, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the US has a number of ways to communicate its views to Iran, and that the administration remains committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, according to the Associated Press.

That the Republican candidates see Iran as an Obama shortcoming to be exploited is clear enough from the focus they have put on it in their debates of foreign-policy issues. Portending a likely campaign theme were he to win his party’s nomination, front-runner Mitt Romney declared in South Carolina in November, “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney,” he continued, “they will not have a nuclear weapon.”

Republicans say Iran inching ever closer to joining the global nuclear club can be traced right back to Obama extending his hand to the Iranians in his inaugural address. 

Obama insists Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon on his watch. But Republicans point out that the US (under both Republican and Democratic presidents, it should be said) has allowed a number of such categorical red lines to come and go before – a point a number of Iran experts say is absolutely true.

“A number of the red lines of the past have come and gone,” says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.

Listing some of the “red lines” that Iran has crossed in the past without devastating consequence – enriching uranium, then enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, most recently commencing 20 percent enrichment at a bunker-style underground facility – Mr. Takeyh adds, “At each step the international community acclimates itself to those gains.”

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.

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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