The Obama administration has the politics of Iran wrong. It is right in understanding that another Mideast war before the presidential election would have dire electoral consequences. That is obvious.
An Israeli attack on Iran or, less likely, a U.S. attack would not only threaten vital U.S. interests in the Middle East, starting with American military and civilian personnel, it would also crash the still weak economy, starting with a huge spike in oil (and hence gasoline) prices.
Every week an attack can be delayed is a good one, allowing time for negotiations to end the crisis over Iran's nuclear development. But it is not good enough. The administration needs to reach a deal that will end the crisis once and for all. That would be good policy and politics, the best combination.
The horror that an attack on Iran would produce is underscored by a new report published by the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, the think tank that is closely associated with AIPAC (the lobby created it in the 1980's but it has spun off with Dennis Ross, the former Obama administration official, who was its first director, back in a central role).
Owing to Ross's presence, anything that comes out of the Washington Institute matters, especially because Ross has maintained his close ties with President Obama.
The report published this week, "Beyond Worst-Case Analysis: Iran's Likely Responses to an Israeli Preventive Strike" by Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights is a very significant addition to the debate over bombing Iran's nuclear sites, its importance underscored because the Washington Institute is very hawkish on Iran.
Reading it one might think that an antiwar organization issued it to encourage policymakers to put away the bombing option permanently, but that is not the purpose of this report.
In fact, the authors make clear from the start that their intention is to demonstrate that worst-case predictions about the results of bombing Iran are overstated. And, if not, that they can be dealt with.
Prudence dictates modesty when attempting to predict the behavior of states embroiled in armed conflict, where uncertainty and the law of unintended consequences rule. Yet more than thirty years' experience observing the current regime in Tehran, combined with insights derived from the Islamic Republic's history and strategic culture, provide reason to support a more measured and less apocalyptic -- if still sobering -- assessment of the likely aftermath of a preventive strike.
The authors offer the following as likely, or at least possible, Iranian responses to a strike on its nuclear sites. Here they are in the authors' order and exact words.
1) Missile strikes against Dimona and Israeli population centers.
2) Terrorism overseas.
3) Proxy attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
4) Kidnapping U.S. personnel.
5) Clashes with the U.S. Navy.
6) Missile or terrorist attacks on neighboring states.
7) Closing the Straits of Hormuz.
8) Rally round the flag (this refers to the Iranian people closing ranks behind a regime they detest in response to an outside attack)
9) The Arab street rises up.
10) A clandestine crash nuclear program.
Each one of these possibilities is described in hair-raising fashion, so much so that it will lead any sane reader to conclude that the bombing Iran option should be swept off the table in favor of unconditional negotiations. That is not, however, what the authors conclude. After seven pages describing the horrors that could follow an attack on Iran, they offer three recommendation of how the United States could prevent or mitigate them:
1. Deterring Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests.
2. Limiting the scope and duration of the conflict by keeping Hizballah out of the fight and mobilizing international pressure on Iran.
3. Ensuring that Iran is unable to rebuild nuclear program in the conflict's aftermath, and that Hizballah is unable to rearm.
In short, the authors are very convincing about the horrific consequences of bombing and equally unconvincing about our ability to prevent those consequences, at least one of which is particularly terrifying: an outbreak of terrorism here:
Iran would likely respond to a strike with terrorist attacks on Israeli, Jewish, and possibly U.S. targets on several continents, perhaps in conjunction with Hizballah. Both Tehran and Hizballah have undertaken such operations in the past, though several attempts have been thwarted in recent years, whether due to enhanced post-9/11 U.S. and Israeli surveillance of terrorist groups or the ineptitude of the operatives in question. It would be prudent to assume, however, that at least some of these attacks would succeed. (Emphasis mine).
Needless to say, the Washington Institute is not alone in making these dire predictions, which have frequently been issued by former U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence officials. But their provenance this time is striking.
Given all this, doesn't it behoove President Obama to stop trying to appease those who are pushing him toward inflexibility in negotiating with Iran in favor of the opposite approach? Rather than trumpet his determination to maintain old sanctions and add new ones -- thereby ensuring Iran makes no major concessions -- why not declare that he is going the extra mile to avoid war?
Up to now Obama has acted as if the only constituency intensely interested in the question of bombing Iran or not bombing Iran are the hawks. And that may be true because no one in the administration emphasizes what bombing Iran might mean to all Americans, Israelis, Iranians and others. But especially to Americans. Accordingly, the pro-war voices are, by far, the loudest.
Nonetheless, Even without Obama addressing this issue, the American people seem to get it. Although they support strong measures to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, they oppose military action by the United States or Israel as this Washington Post/ABC News poll demonstrates. Obviously it did not take the Washington Institute's frightening scenario to convince Americans that the last thing we need is another war, especially one that poses the threat of terrorism at home along with crashing the economy.
That is why Obama should stop dragging his feet and go into the next round of negotiations determined to come out with a deal that resolves the conflict.
Yes, a few donors might not be happy. But the vast majority of Americans would be pleased to see their president announce that he has achieved a deal that would both eliminate any Iranian nuclear threat to Israel in favor of us agreeing to accept limited Iranian enrichment for civilian purposes and, as we lift sanctions in return, lead to more oil and lower gas prices at home.
Successful peacemaking may not win elections in and of themselves but any significant achievement by a president raises his stature by making him look like an accomplished leader. Obama needs that kind of accomplishment right now. Simply kicking the Iran can down the road until after the election accomplishes nothing.
Besides, averting the catastrophes that war with Iran would accomplish is simply the right thing to do. In fact, it is Obama's obligation to the American people. Resolving the Iran crisis is a win-win. And Obama can do it, if he wants to.