Commentary Magazine


Can Obama Get Away With Iran Inaction?

President Obama has been assuring the public since before he was elected in 2008 that he would never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But the question facing the White House this year is whether a failure to make good on that pledge will be more damaging to his chances of re-election than a spike in oil prices.

That’s the dilemma Obama has been grappling with since Congress passed a bill over his objections last month that mandated a complete ban on all transactions with entities that did business with Iran’s Central Bank. Sanctions on the bank are the lever by which an international embargo on the sale of Iranian oil is made possible. But as American diplomats are laying the groundwork for such an embargo, the administration is also sending out signals that indicate it is less than enthusiastic about dealing with the possible economic fallout of the one tactic that might stop the Iranians short of war.

According to the New York Times, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has already told Congress he thought the bank measure interfered with the administration’s  “carefully phased” approach to sanctions on Iran. Having demanded and gotten a waiver inserted into the bill that would allow the president to put off the sanctions indefinitely, there is now a very real chance Obama will decide the sanctions are not worth the trouble. With the president’s favorability numbers already low, the White House may believe the impact of a major increase in the price of gas and the consequent economic distress may be more politically toxic than actions that can be interpreted as acquiescing to a nuclear Iran.

But with diplomacy offering no hope and since the administration has made it clear it will not support the use of force against Iran and opposes Israel doing so on its own, punting on an oil embargo will be seen as an indication Obama is not prepared to do anything to stop Tehran.

Doing so will open the president up to fierce criticism from Republicans. Just as troubling is that it will undermine his standing with a key component of his electoral coalition: American Jews. Obama may be able to hold onto the loyalty of a group that is for the most part comprised of Democratic partisans, even though he has often quarreled with Israel’s government. But for Obama to refuse to use the one economic lever he has at his disposal to avert an existential threat to Israel as well as to the entire Middle East would certainly cost him heavily among Jews as well as non-Jewish friends of Israel.

Essentially, Obama has until late June to decide whether or not to use the waiver Congress gave him. While we must expect the administration would attempt to explain its use as part of a long-range strategy against Iran, the consequences of doing so could be greater than just some lost votes. If the United States chooses not to push tough sanctions against Iran, then Israel may decide it must take matters into its own hands. Since the president has acted at times as if he was more afraid of Israel attacking Iranian nuclear sites than he was of the ayatollah gaining control of a bomb, that too may figure into his decision. Even worse for the president is the possibility that further delay will result in an Iranian announcement of nuclear capability on Obama’s watch.

But if Obama is left with no good choices about Iran he has only himself to blame. Having wasted his first three years in office on a foolish policy of “engagement” with and feckless diplomatic initiatives that accomplished nothing, the fact that he has painted himself into a corner on this issue during an election year is entirely his own doing.