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Obama's second term: The case for preventing Iranian nukes
Stopping Tehran from weaponizing its nuclear energy program remains a top U.S. priority. But should it be?
 
With sanctions crippling the Iranian economy, Iran's leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, may finally be ready to cave to the West's nuclear demands.
With sanctions crippling the Iranian economy, Iran's leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, may finally be ready to cave to the West's nuclear demands.
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

One of the few foreign policy issues that featured prominently in the 2012 presidential race was Iran's accelerating nuclear program and what to do about it. President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney both said all options would be on the table to prevent Iran from weaponizing its nuclear energy program — Iran denies that it wants to build nuclear weapons — and Obama reiterated the point at his first post-election press conference on Wednesday. "With respect to Iran, I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem," he said. "We're not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon, but I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically."

The issue: Stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons
"Mention 'grand bargain,' and most Washington watchers will be forgiven for thinking domestically and in terms of the deal Obama will be trying to reach with Republicans to avoid the 'fiscal cliff,'" says Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor. "But there's another grand bargain hanging out there like hard-to-reach fruit": The ongoing diplomacy to head off Iranian nukes.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have been tense since 1979, when Iranians overthrew the brutal U.S.-backed Shah Pahlavi and stormed the U.S. Embassy, taking 55 Americans hostage. Things never warmed up between the U.S. and the Islamic republic, but relations cooled even more in 2002, when George W. Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, in part because Tehran "aggressively pursues" nuclear weapons. 

In 2009, Obama came into office offering a reset of U.S.-Iran relations, seeking "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." Those efforts fell apart after a disputed Iranian presidential election that June led to large protests that were violently suppressed. Iran then walked away from a U.S.-brokered deal to provide Tehran with enriched (not weapons-grade) uranium for its power plants, and when credible reports of an Iranian weapons program emerged in 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration turned to increasingly punitive sanctions to further isolate Iran. "I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved," Obama said Nov. 14. But "I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk though."

How Obama might prevent Iran's nukes
Conditions are as ripe as ever to reach a deal with Iran, says Elise Labott at CNN. Obama's re-election has "bought him more time to find a diplomatic solution and restrain [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu from launching an Israeli strike." And Iran — with lame-duck President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presiding over an economy "already showing significant strain under crippling international sanctions" — might finally be amenable to dealing away its nuclear ambitions. 

The White House vehemently denied a pre-election New York Times report of direct talks between the U.S.and Iran, but if it's actually true, that "could be a huge breakthrough," says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. Obama said Nov. 14 that if Iran wants to deal, "we're not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols." And he could do worse than starting to reach out to Mohammad-Bagher Qaliba, the favorite to replace term-limited Ahmadinejad. "Qalibaf is no pro-Western liberal. But he has spoken somewhat reasonably in interviews" about collaborating with the U.S. That's not kumbayah, but "hey, it's not 'let's throw Israel into the sea,'" either.

Iran is Obama's "best opportunity to make history," but "there is a relatively narrow negotiating window" — the six months between Israeli elections in January and Iran's in June, says P.J. Crowley at The Daily Beast. Watch for a big push before the end of the year. And if he hits the timing right, "the basics of a grand bargain exist — the Iranian right to low-grade enrichment for civilian purposes in exchange for rigorous inspections to prevent a weapons breakout."

Why he's unlikely to succeed
"The Obama administration's sanctions-only approach may have reduced Iran's options for underwriting and supporting its nuclear program, but it has not dissuaded Tehran from continuing down the nuclear path," says James Robbins at U.S. News. And that's not likely to change. Just look at North Korea: Even with crippling sanctions and fewer resources, the hermit kingdom got the bomb. "From Tehran's point of view, if Pyongyang could do it, so can they."

And remember, "there are serious, thoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran, kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction," says Bill Keller in The New York Times. The threat of mutually assured annihilation has worked with the U.S. and Russia and India and Pakistan, and while "Iran may encourage fanatic chumps to carry out suicide missions, there is not the slightest reason to believe the mullahs themselves are suicidal." The best thing would be successful negotiations, but a nuclear Iran is better than nuking Tehran. Indeed, negotiations probably won't work, but that's alright, says Kenneth N. Waltz at Foreign Affairs. A nuclear Iran "would probably be the best possible result: The one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."

Read more analysis of Obama's second term:
-The case for an Arab-Israeli peace push
-The case for entitlement reform
-
The case for immigration reform
-
The case for intervening in Syria
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The case for new climate change laws

Sources: Bloomberg, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, Daily Beast (2), New York Times (2), U.S. News

 

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