Obama's Next Gulf Crisis

07/20/2010 11:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico has been an unwanted but timely reminder of the power of unforeseen events to overshadow even the most carefully planned White House agenda. President Obama's uneven public response during the first weeks of the oil spill--not to mention an oddly lackluster Oval Office address panned by even his most ardent supporters--has almost certainly contributed to the recent decline of his approval ratings. But looming over a gulf halfway around the world is another potential crisis for the president, one that is likely to provide an even greater test of his leadership. That crisis is Iran.

President Obama has stated that he is "determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." But the clock is now ticking. During a recent appearance on ABC's "This Week," CIA director Leon Panetta said that Iran currently has enough low-enriched uranium to produce two nuclear weapons. It would take probably a year to enrich the material to weapons-grade levels, according to Panetta, and another year to develop an effective delivery system. Which means the Islamic Republic could be just two years away from nuclear weapons. The timing is significant, because it is possible President Obama might very well be confronted with the most difficult choice of his presidency in 2012, just as he is campaigning for a second term in office. His actions will help define the balance of power in the Middle East for decades to come and will go a long way toward determining his legacy.

Will he be known forever as the president who stopped the Iranian program in its tracks? Or will he go down in history as the leader who allowed the mullahs to realize their nuclear dreams?

There is a chance, of course, that another leader might act before him--namely, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. For many years, I was skeptical as to whether Israel would be willing to carry out a risky unilateral strike against the Iranian program. But recent conversations with several intelligence experts, some of whom are in direct contact with Netanyahu, have convinced me that Israel will indeed attack if it feels it has no other choice. This is hardly the optimal solution to the Iran problem.

While Israel might possess the nerve and existential motivation to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, it probably lacks the firepower necessary to do the job properly. There is only one country with the capability to truly cripple Iran's widely dispersed and hardened nuclear archipelago, and that is the United States of America.

But is President Obama willing to use American military might to deny the Iranians a nuclear weapon? Having tried and failed to deter Tehran with engagement and diplomacy, the White House is now giving sanctions a chance to work.

In theory, crippling sanctions targeting Iran's all-important petroleum sector might stand a chance of success. But the sanctions recently approved by the UN Security Council--and the even tougher unilateral American sanctions signed into law by Obama earlier this month--seem unlikely to deter Iran. When asked whether sanctions alone could stop the Iranian program, CIA director Panetta told ABC News: "Probably not."

What then? As first reported by the New York Times, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned the White House that the United States lacks an effective strategy for dealing with Iran in the event sanctions fail. Roughly speaking, President Obama has two options: allow Iran to join the club of nuclear nations and seek to contain it, or strike militarily.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter at the time of Iran's Islamic revolution, has warned against military action, saying it would only "set back Iran's nuclear program" and likely provoke the Iranians into destabilizing the Middle East and cutting off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Some intelligence analysts, however, say that scenario, long considered gospel by many policymakers and analysts, may be overblown. They point out that any Iranian-supported act of terrorism would no doubt be met by an overwhelming American military response--and any attempt to disrupt the flow of Middle Eastern crude would drain Iranian coffers of vital oil revenues and thus further weaken the regime's standing among its restive populace. Using this calculus, they say, the military option--even a unilateral Israeli strike--is far preferable to inaction. "While we may not know exactly what will happen if we attack the Iranian nuclear facilities," a senior Israeli official said during a private meeting, "we do know what will happen the day after Iran tests its first nuclear device. The Middle East and the world will be a very different place."

Overnight, Iran will emerge as a dominant power in the Middle East--perhaps the regional superpower. For many years, the nations ringing the large inland waterway separating the Arabian Peninsula from Iran have engaged in a somewhat amusing spat over its name. The Iranians say it should be called the Persian Gulf while their Arab neighbors think, not surprisingly, that it should be referred to as the Arabian Gulf. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran will settle the dispute once and for all.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, caused a stir at the Aspen Ideas Festival this month by stating publicly what many Gulf Arabs have been willing to whisper only in private. When asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic whether he wanted the Americans to use force to stop the Iranian nuclear program, Al Otaiba answered, "Absolutely." He added: "At seven thousand miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region ... but it will not threaten you."

As yet, Iran has not sworn to wipe the United Arab Emirates from the map. Only the State of Israel has earned that distinction. But in moments of candor, even the most hawkish Israelis admit to worrying less about a nuclear attack from the Iranians and more about the ability of a nuclear-armed Iran to project power and influence across an already-unstable Middle East.

Even without the cover of a nuclear weapon, Iran has been a promiscuous supporter of terrorism and has showered money and weaponry on its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. Surely, the mullahs' behavior will only worsen if they regard themselves as untouchable nuclear-armed "made men" of the Middle East. Israel will undoubtedly pay a high price if Iran becomes a regional bully. So, too, will the United States.

During this summer of fouled marshlands, high unemployment, and fears of a double-dip recession, the issue of Iran has receded quietly into the shadows. It is possible the Iranians will stumble during their march toward a nuclear weapon, as they have many times in the past. It is also possible Israeli and American efforts to impede the program through sabotage and other covert operations might buy policymakers some much-needed breathing room.

If President Obama is lucky, the bill might not come due on his watch. But the centrifuges are still spinning, and the scientists are still toiling. And unfortunately, the chances are good that the president might one day find himself longing for the days when his biggest problem was plugging a "damn hole" on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Daniel Silva is the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, Moscow Rules, and The Defector. His newest novel, The Rembrandt Affair, will be published on July 20.