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Will Obama Back an Iran Oil Embargo?

The Wall Street Journal reports today the Obama administration is engaging in talks with America’s European allies and various Arab states about what would happen in the event of an embargo on the export of Iranian oil. Such a measure was made possible late last week when Congress passed the Defense Authorization Act. The bill included a measure that would ban any dealings with financial entities that dealt with Iran’s Central Bank; the institution by which Tehran is able to conduct its oil trades. The U.S.-led discussions seemingly are a precursor to a move to ramp up sanctions on the Iranians so as to force them to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons.

If the United States were to actually enforce a ban on the Iranian Central Bank, then cooperation between the Arab states, Europe and the U.S. would be necessary to limit the impact of a rise in oil prices that might inevitably result from this course of action. But the real question we should be asking today is not so much “when” the ban would be enacted but “if.” Since President Obama had opposed passage of the bank transaction ban and insisted upon and got the inclusion of waivers in the legislation that would ignore the law, it is far from clear that Iran is actually in any trouble. For three years, the ayatollahs have been acting as if they believed Obama wasn’t serious about stopping him. We may soon see whether or not they are right.

Among the optimists is Walter Russell Meade, who writes today in his blog at The American Interest that plans for an embargo are an expression of a growing international consensus that Iran must be stopped. He rightly scoffs at the idea that the focus on Iran is a function of American and Israeli animus for Islam and points out that the Arabs are just as scared of the ayatollahs as the Jews.

But the problem here is that after three years of feckless diplomacy, it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that Tehran’s low opinion of President Obama’s resolve is accurate.

While the president continues to vow, as he did on Friday when he addressed the Union of Reform Judaism’s biennial convention that he won’t let Iran go nuclear, most of the signals coming out of Washington seem to indicate a lack of seriousness about the U.S. push on the issue. The negotiations over the sanctions bill just passed by Congress illustrated this conundrum. Though Obama brags about how tough he is about Iran, the administration made it very clear it was not happy about Congress actually giving it the one tool it needs — a ban on dealings with Iran’s Central Bank – that could make an oil embargo a reality. If the president is ready to enforce this ban, then Iran’s oil exports can be effectively crippled. But if that’s what he wants to do, it is hard to imagine why Obama would insist on the bill including waivers that could allow him to put such a measure off indefinitely.

It also bears repeating that the United States is not enforcing the weak sanctions already on the books. Talking about sanctions is the one thing this administration seems able to do. It requires a considerable leap of faith to think that the president is ready to carry them out.

The only reason to believe the administration is prepared to act was supplied by one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Mark Kirk, who accurately characterized the waivers as “a get out of jail free card.” He still thinks Obama won’t use them because “as you enter a presidential contest, there’s no upside to being soft on Iran.”

But Obama, who entered office determined to “engage” with Iran and refused to publicly support pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets of Tehran in their thousands, has consistently been soft on the Islamist regime. Though a failure to press Iran would give his Republican opponents an issue on which they could easily attack him, it may be that Obama is far more afraid of an election-year spike in oil prices than being called an appeaser. Given that the president’s re-election campaign has been appealing to the left more than the center or right, it could be that Obama’s political calculations could work to the ayatollahs’ favor rather than against them.

Though Obama may yet vindicate his defenders, there is still good reason to be skeptical about the administration’s willingness to do what needs to be done to avert the catastrophe of a nuclear Iran.



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