Obama’s Iran dilemma could be a game changer

Obama’s Iran dilemma could be a game changer

Could it be that the international sanctions against Iran are hurting the Obama administration more than Iran itself? The argument over whether sanctions ever work is an age-old and never-ending debate, and to be clear, that’s not the one I’m trying to have in this column. But I do think it’s worth examining the negatives of Obama’s Iran policy, especially because it is likely to play out during this election season.

Let’s start with the background: Iran’s recent parliamentary elections went off without a hitch. No major protests (see: Russia), no violence, barely a blip in the Western media. Turnout on voting day was surprisingly high, even for the Islamist republic. That has a little to do with the fact that government is actually quite factionalized in Iran — Khamenei versus Ahmadinejad, yes, but also all sorts of high and mid-level bureaucrats — and each faction worked hard to drive turnout, to be able to pass the hot potato of blame should the election have gone poorly. Well, the election didn’t go poorly at all, and suddenly Iran’s government looks more legitimate, internally and externally, than it has in years. Reformists in Iran also picked up a large number of seats, and Iran has everything it did before the election — real economic wealth, a social safety net and huge oil resources that it can sell to every country that doesn’t adhere to the sanctions, of which there are plenty.

That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election, which is to say one that doesn’t exactly look deplorable to large parts of the global community — like Russia, China, nearly all of Africa and even much of the Middle East. The Iranians won’t be easy to demonize, and to get the sanctions lifted, they are even making concessions to the Europeans, suggesting in talks they’d be amenable to restarting inspections. They’ll play the razor’s edge, even as the uncertainty in the oil market and fear of a shock — like an attack by the U.S. or Israel — steadily drives up the price of oil around the globe.

And that’s the downside for Obama — not only does he have to keep the hawks on their heels to stay true to campaign promises of avoiding unnecessary conflict, but he’ll have to do it as the threat in Iran appears to mount and the price of oil continues, most likely, to climb from its already-high perch of about $107 a barrel. Can Obama really squeeze Iran economically? Given the facts on the ground and Iran’s willingness to play at good behavior, I just don’t buy it. With an improving economy here and a self-defeating Republican field, this is one area that can go bad for the incumbent administration in a hurry, much more so than Europe’s shaky economy or the Greek debt crisis boiling over.

Yet the president is managing the situation as well as anyone could. In meetings with the hawkish Israeli prime minister, Obama kept Bibi Netanyahu talking in abstracts rather than concrete plans for Iran. He promised the country he wouldn’t telegraph his plans, arguing it’s foolish to tell a potential enemy what’s going to happen. (That’s a striking about-face for a country that so recently had a doctrine of preemptive war.) Obama probably got a good performance from Netanyahu because the U.S. has covertly provided Israel with much support on the Iran situation. But make no mistake: Behind the scenes, Bibi has surely drawn a line beyond which Israel won’t placidly follow U.S. policy.

Even though the energy-consuming behaviors of Americans are surprisingly elastic, as illustrated in a new study showing we’re driving far less than we used to, citizens and voters do fear the idea of $5-per-gallon gas - and they’ll punish the politicians who allow it to happen. Even if Obama manages to contain the financial and housing crises, not to mention stop the bleeding on unemployment, he can’t replace them with an energy crisis and expect to avoid pushback in the voting booth. And that’s what, heading toward November, he’ll have to fear in the standoff with Iran and the U.S.’s relationship with Israel.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the global political risk research and consulting firm. This essay, based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer, was taken from Reuters.