Why It Is Plausible to Believe Obama Might Use Force Against Iran

David Rothkopf on why President Obama might use military force against the Iranian nuclear program (a companion piece, perhaps, to my own column on the subject):

Here in the U.S., analysts believe that Obama would not risk being drawn into a war in the region or the upheaval a series of attacks might cause. Even though tensions are definitely rising and those familiar with the IAEA report that will be circulated next week say, "It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance," there is a sense that Obama won't pull the trigger. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour was quoted by the Guardian as saying, "A U.S. military attack on Iran is not going to happen during Obama's presidency. If you're Obama, and your priority is to resuscitate the American economy and decrease the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, bombing Iran would defeat those two objectives. Oil prices would skyrocket." While an attack is no sure thing yet, the analysis is wrong.

Certainly no one in the Obama Administration is eager to launch an attack on Iran. Taking steps that would risk being drawn into another war or that might damage the global economy further or could distract from the world at home would be vigorously opposed by several of the President's most senior advisors, and he undoubtedly would be deeply divided on the issue himself.

But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won't take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama's strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won't. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area ... and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.

As a consequence, the President and his advisors are acutely aware of the Iran issue. But their concerns go much deeper. The President and his national security leadership are deeply worried about the potential consequences associated with an Iranian nuclear breakthrough. It would likely trigger an arms race in the region at a time of considerable instability. It would immediately ratchet up tensions between Iran and Israel ... but also between Iran and its historic enemies in the Gulf. It would both raise Iran's perceived clout and underscore the absence of a counterweight either from the U.S., the West, or the international community at large.

While an attack on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities almost certainly would produce a spike in oil prices, those prices would stabilize if the attacks were successful and did not produce a protracted war. Further, with the world economy in a slump, prices are feeling less upward pressure anyway these days. However, if Iran gained nuclear weapons, it might trigger a kind of uncertainty that would be protracted and would have a longer-term effect on oil prices.