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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Obama Administration and Iran

Watching the Republican debate it appears obvious that the GOP believes that it can actually wrest the Jewish vote from the President (although there are doubters). That would not be an inconceiveable event. In 2008, Obama won over 75% of the Jewish vote. Since then, the President has run into trouble, most notably in the special election in New York and the recently leaked conversations between him and Nicholas Sarkozy on Binyamin Netanyahu.

As Tom Friedman noted on The McLaughlin Group, the worst kept secret in Washington is that President Obama doesn't get along with Netanyahu. There was, one cannot fail to note, that lecture in the White House. But that, of course, doesn't mean that Obama and Netanyahu cannot go beyond their personal differences to do what is best for Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East.

Iran is the big issue that may or may not drive a wedge between Obama and a traditionally Democratic constituency. If Iran were to get nuclear weapons, Obama would probably lose the Jewish vote. And Obama would probably deserve it (though the Bush administration was never called to the carpet for allowing North Korea to become nuclear on its watch). The administration is pursuing very complicated efforts against the Iranian regime, just short of attacking installations (do we even have active intelligence on those installations?)
The Wall Street Journal summed it up nicely this weekend:

"Following the release on Tuesday of the United Nations nuclear agency's report concluding Iran is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, the U.S. and others have indicated they would seek to put more weight into two main pressure points on Iran: sanctions and the threat of a military strike.
Though those efforts have yet to force concessions, Tehran's recent show of defiance has been read by some Iran experts as false bravado intended to keep the international community from taking harsher action.
Iran has two options, analysts say: Push back and risk provoking a fatal blow, or concede to negotiations about its nuclear program and risk appearing weak—at a time when several other autocratic governments in the region have been toppled by popular uprisings.
For now, the closest Iran has come to concession was the Foreign Ministry representative's statement Wednesday that Iran was ready to negotiate on the condition that it was treated on equal footing.
But the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and senior military commanders all pledged to sow mayhem if the U.S. or Israel attacked. Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran won't budge on its nuclear program.
Libya, the latest Arab nation to see a hard-line leadership toppled by popular revolt, serves as an important example for Iran's leaders. Libya's ousted leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi abandoned the country's nuclear and chemical-weapons programs in 2003 in exchange for international investment, the reversal of sanctions, and praise from world leaders.
The lesson to the hard-liners in power in Iran, analysts say, is that Gadhafi lost Libya because he gave up his nuclear program, and with it a deterrent against foreign military intervention. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization backed the rebels who toppled Gadhafi and ultimately killed him.
"The only condition Iran will retreat is if it truly feels a major threat in the near future, otherwise it will push ahead with its nuclear program to a point of no return," said Hossein Bastani, a former government official now based in France.
Further, internally Iran is a mess. After the relative calm after those synthetic elections, the uprising is once again stirring. The region is aflame. Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah are in a desperate power struggle. And Syria, the regimes closest ally and proxy, is in chaos.

The United States at present has a strong hand so long as time is in Obama's favor and he is allowed to continue to apply pressure against the regime. Even -- after it own fashion -- the ultra-macho sabre rattling on the Republican Right helps the Obama administration. It makes Obama's offers for a deal far, far better than the alternative.

If Iran wants to negotiate, it would be far better for them to make a deal to relinquish their nuclear ambitions under an Obama administration than under a Romney or -- God help us -- a Cain administration.

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