Attacking Iran: The Last Thing the U.S. Administration Wants to Do

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>This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.


In a few days, I'm slated to offer a longer riposte to Jeffrey Goldberg's story addressing the probability and prudence of an Israeli strike on Iran (sneak peak: I think it unlikely and highly imprudent). In the meantime, I am tasked with responding to Elliott Abrams's more narrowly framed argument that a U.S. military attack against Iran would benefit Obama domestically, and that a failure to act accordingly could cost him the 2012 presidential election.

If I were to look at Iran policy solely through the eyes of a David Plouffe or a David Axelrod -- i.e., in a way driven by domestic political expediency -- I would mull over the following data points: In a Gallup poll from last week, 65 percent of Americans cited the economy as their top concern, while less than 1 percent listed Iran's nuclear program.

Put another way (according to a recent Pew poll), three times as many Americans followed the news that a Dutch man suspected in the 2005 disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway confessed to having killed a woman in Peru, as followed the latest news about sanctions and Iran's nuclear program.

On the basis of this information, I would conclude that, whereas Iran now has a seemingly negligible impact on daily American life, an attack on Iran -- which would cause oil prices to skyrocket to unprecedented levels (perhaps $200 barrel) -- would have a significantly adverse impact on the daily lives of Americans.

At a time when the unemployment rate is above 10 percent and economic recovery is tenuous, I can't image that $5-per-gallon gasoline would auger well for Obama and the Democrats.

If I were Plouffe or Axelrod, my sense of urgency about taking action against Iran would be further tempered by the facts that: a) the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy has been an effort to stabilize Afghanistan and draw down troops in Iraq, and bombing Iran would make both tasks doubly difficult; b) one of the reasons why Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries was his opposition to, and her support for, the Iraq war, and bombing Iran would alienate, rather than energize, the Democratic base; and c) by all accounts, Iran does not have the wherewithal to develop and test a nuclear bomb before November 2012 (assuming that it wants to).

Given all these factors, I think that Plouffe or Axelrod would swiftly reach precisely the opposite conclusion from Elliott Abrams's. I.e., they would conclude that a military attack on Iran, and the myriad long-term repercussions of such an attack (which I will address later), could well sabotage Obama's chance at re-election. As a longtime student of the cynical, Machiavellian world of Middle Eastern politics, I suspect that's why Elliott offered such advice in the first place.

The debate continues here.

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Karim Sadjadpour is an associate with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Formerly the chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Washington and Tehran, he was named a “young global leader” by the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007.

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