Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Obama’s Iran dilemma could be a game changer

By Ian Bremmer
March 9, 2012

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 midlevel 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.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Comments
20 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Certainly there is a threat from Iran, whether nuclear or otherwise, to the State of Israel as currently constituted. But is Iran a threat to the USA? Or to American interests, if we disregard Israel?

No one seems to want to admit that American and Israeli interests are different. While this is clearly a development that favors Israel, essentially handing them a “blank check” both financially and militarily, it is also clear that it is not in the interests of the USA. Somehow, Israeli agents have become embedded in our Government and vital institutions to the point where that fact cannot openly be discussed. Instead we hear constant pressure for “real Americans” to obey each and every command that comes from a foreign State, Israel.

This is not the characteristic of an independent country but of a colony.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

Israel, with its 200 nukes, is more of a threat to Iran and the entire Middle East than Iran is to Israel. And Iran is certainly no threat to the US. The fact is, only Israel and the Israel-firsters in the US want an attack on Iran. These warmongers have no sense of decency or diplomacy. They cower in fear because their own actions are so aggressive that they constantly have to be on the alert. The Israeli bullies are forcing Palestinian children inside Israel to walk four hours a day to and from school, refusing them the same public transportation that’s available to Israeli children. Since when does a civilized, democratic nation attack the weakest members of society? The world should be outraged at the inhumanity of the Israelis–is this really what Judaism is all about?

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive
 

I note with dismay that Bremmer frames his argument in the context of the US elections, and it is perfectly proper that he does so. But it’s a sad commentary on something that is terribly common throughout much of the democratic world now. Things are said and done all over the world solely on the basis that someone is running for office and can’t really do otherwise, or that what we hear is probably not the way the current administration really feels but they have no choice but to articulate something that appeals to a vocal minority. Democratically elected governments are increasing held hostage by such minorities, not because they must be, but because politicians seem to react viscerally and unthinkingly to whoever is yelling loudest. The above comments about Israel reflect the same idea: It’s an election year – don’t upset the Israeli lobby. Democracy is supposed to be about the greatest good for the greatest number, not just pandering to whoever is making the most noise this week. Our systems are failing because the people who want to be elected will say and do anything to try to appeal to every constituency, however small. The phrase that describes this is ‘lack of integrity’.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive
 

Can’t say it any better than steve778936 with regards to the “lack of integrity” of those running for office. But that same lack of integrity may be Mr. Obama’s saving grace in this election. When I weigh $5/gallon gas against the “war on women” instigated by the Republican candidates trying to gain favor with the ultra-conservative members of their party … I’ll take the price of gas any day and vote Democrat!

Posted by womanwithabrain | Report as abusive
 

(quote) “(US policy with iran) this is one area that can go bad for the incumbent administration in a hurry”

agreed – they have underestimated the task, its issues and the moral hypocrisy of their anti-nuclear demands

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive
 

Bremer’s Op-Ed unfortunately uses his assumptions as if they are factual conclusions; which they are not. The accuracy of his information in the back-grounding of Iran’s national elections is suspect; f6 w/b my guess, unable to judge credibility of informant, unable to judge validity of information.

Then, his assumption, “That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election”, is questionable. He continues use assumptions to prove his conclusions: “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.”….He goes even further here assuming and concluding in this sentence, “But make no mistake: Behind the scenes, Bibi has surely drawn a line beyond which Israel won’t placidly follow U.S. policy.”

IMHO, Bremer’s Op-Ed is very much ‘opinion’ based on assumptions and frankly after 20+ years of hospital management experience and 10+ years of IT & Internet consulting, I know the downside of what ‘assuming’ can, has, and will cause and avoid displaying them in public.

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive
 

Bremer’s Op-Ed unfortunately uses his assumptions as if they are factual conclusions; which they are not. The accuracy of his information in the back-grounding of Iran’s national elections is suspect; f6 w/b my guess, unable to judge credibility of informant, unable to judge validity of information.

Then, his assumption, “That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election”, is questionable. He continues use assumptions to prove his conclusions: “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.”….He goes even further here assuming and concluding in this sentence, “But make no mistake: Behind the scenes, Bibi has surely drawn a line beyond which Israel won’t placidly follow U.S. policy.”

IMHO, Bremer’s Op-Ed is very much ‘opinion’ based on assumptions and frankly after 20+ years of hospital management experience and 10+ years of IT & Internet consulting, I know the downside of what ‘assuming’ can, has, and will cause and avoid displaying them in public.

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive
 

Yes, Mr. Obama’s voters are shallow enough to vote up or down on his Presidency based on gas prices alone. He is supposed to give them some variant of a free lunch not higher gas prices. Oddly because of his simplistic vote buying pandering he is at the mercy of Israel. If Israel attacks and causes higher gas prices, he loses. If Israel doesn’t attack but Mr. Obama’s Iran containment policy causes higher gas prices, he also loses. Perhaps there is some hope for America after all.

Posted by Truth_Teller | Report as abusive
 

If our President chooses to abandon an ally in their time of need, they can easily go it alone. If conventional weapons fail to achieve the desired results, Israel can use their Nukes. Either way, folks had better gas up.

Posted by wisehiney | Report as abusive
 

This vanity puff piece about the prez is vain and almost as ignorant of history as the prez. “Iran’s recent parliamentary elections went off without a hitch” tell that to the dead, tortured and imprisoned members of the first Arab spring revolution, the Iranian Green Revolution, that the prez and his media accomplices smugly swept under the rug. Talk about a lost opportunity Mr. Empty Suit prez.
This prez and the west is too stupid to take advantage of Syria and solve its Iran, Israel, and middle east problem in one fell swoop, especially now that Hamas in on board. That would take someone of honesty, integrity, morality and intelligence which is not today available as the US and Europeans are under the spell of the Chicago gang in DC. Hope you Europeans are enjoying your hope prez.

Note: Media and journalists that ignore and distort events, news and history are part of the problem and are accomplices at best to the crimes they cover up.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

Oh, how the assumptions fly. First, to give Iran even an ounce of credibility makes you a sucker. 5x over. They’ve been doing this cat & mouse act since 1979, so diplomacy = stalling. See Russia, Syria, N.Korea, etc. for example. They are all masters.

I do not condone US military involvement at all in Iran or Syria in the short term. That is a much larger trap than Afghanistan/Iraq combined. Why? B/c Russia and China sell them weapons and are, guess what, stalling… meanwhile, people in Syria are being systematically butchered. Ever wonder what would have happened to Benghazi? Yep.

So, why don’t we start criticizing some of these major intn’l players like Russia. They have the ability to affect change, and they won’t and won’t let anyone else. That being said, having our US President issuing a formal apology for burning books while our US Servicemen are being murdered in cold blood (at their desks) makes me ill.

Israel is only going to hold off until there is a new US President elected in November. They do not want to risk galvanizing the US population behind Obamarama.

Posted by Ebars | Report as abusive
 

There is one thing so many are not aware of and that is Iran is one of China’s major oil suppliers.

If you put this fact into perspective then Obama should disengage from Israel’s empty rhetoric and mend our relations with Iran, which would lower gas prices considerably. This is in America’s interest, but apparently not in Israel’s interest.
A nuclear Iran is only a threat to Israel’s Zionist agenda.
It is not a threat to the rest of the world. China in particular would have taken action some time ago.

Today it is considered political suicide for any one in Washington to say anything that is not in Israel’s interest. This is how powerful the pro-Israel lobby has become.

Siding with Israel we are loosing our credibility in the Muslim/Arab governments and their oil that we so desperately need, and worse yet we are allowing China to take advantage of our short-sighted Middle East policy.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive
 

most interventions in the middle east have been strategically masterminded by oil companies (e.g. anglo-american oil aka BP in Iran, 1953)

the article alludes to the complex and contradictory nature of other agendas that stymie political policies

the agenda is no longer “iran as fiend in the axis of evil”
but rather what is an ally?

and what is he doing in my policy soup?

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive
 

Israel has the same nuclear options as all small nuclear powers. It has massive power to destroy but almost certainly risks nuclear destruction from one of the huge nuclear powers if it uses nuclear weapons, especially first. It just might.

Israel and Iran are two of the world’s most unreliable and unstable nuclear weapons armed nations. The risk is that either one can start a nuclear world war. Iran almost certainly has had multiple nuclear weapons of Soviet origin for over 20 years. The USA chased known “phantom” (i.e. false) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because it suited our country’s rulers. Now, we pretend we do not know Iran already has nuclear weapons, but cannot yet produce its own. Are we ready to discover exactly which targets Iran has selected in case of a major attack? Is Israel?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

The author writes “Behind the scenes, Bibi has surely drawn a line beyond which Israel won’t placidly follow U.S. policy.”

Probably the author is straightforward, 2 + 2 =4 types. The author should know clearly the world does not function in a linear manner, where you can predict whats gonna happen. I have written many a times in Reuters blog that the concept of an Iran attack itself is a WORLD SCALE INTERNATIONAL HUMBUG AND BLUFF IN MODERN HISTORY. Its never gonna happen, even if Iran may or may not build the atomic bomb, even if negotiations fail. I have given reasons enough number of times in these blogs why this is so. It ranges from overthrow of the President of the United States due to high oil prices, to turmoil in Europe because its monopoly gas supplier Russia will triple natural gas price, to Pakistan forced to supplying nuclear bombs to Iran by the huge number of population of Iranian origin people settled in Pakistan, just as the strong lobby of Jews in America. My point is do not think in the 2+2=4 track. The actual track could surely be – if Israel attacks Iran independently, America, feeling things going out of control in the world will actually “kill” Israel or demolish its attack systems, and quickly bring situation under control and prevent WW 3. This will be the only way out. Russia and China will side Iran if there is a war, and will be forced to enter the war, should Israel attack Iran, hence U turn by America.

An Israel attack only excites ameturish authors and bloggers.

Posted by Dhirajkunar | Report as abusive
 

‘The argument over whether sanctions ever work is an age-old and never-ending debate’

Proper sanctions do work. They worked against South Africa. I know. I was there.

Where does Reuters get these unworldly ninnies full of awards, degrees and clever rhetoric, but with little real world experience.

Bremmer seems to lack any understanding of the perceived existential threat (rightly or wrongly) most Israelis have of the Iran nuclear situation. And Obama’s weak response to their concerns. They are feeling increasingly hawkish because the consequence of thinking otherwise could be catastrophic. Not because they have a hawkish prime minister.

It is a moot point whether Obama is “managing it as well as anyone could” considering that nothing has changed. Iran moves relentlessly towards acquiring nuclear weapons and Obama, like the dog next door watching the burglary, watches and barks.

Clearly Bremmer, like Obama, is a peace in our time man. it did not work out last time round and nothing in Bremmer’s article convinces that it will be different this time.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive
 

Any sensible economist administrator will ensure IRAN pumps out more oil and prices crash so that revenue from oil can buy food only. The policies advocated and followed are doing exactly opposite. Iran sells same oil else where at better prices leaving more margins for the chosen path.

a useless idea is propagated as smart sanction.

Posted by Ramadurai | Report as abusive
 

I am astonished (reading the above comments) that there’s still anyone out there who doesn’t believe that Israel will attack Iran unless its nuclear programme comes under proper scrutiny to guarantee that it cannot produce a nuclear bomb. Such an attack will happen within months if the other measures don’t work. I am flabbergasted (again reading the above comments) that anybody should think that a nuclear-armed Iran is not a threat to the United States. Such an opinion can only be based on world view trapped somewhere back in the 1950s. In particular, it ignores the history of asymmetric terrorist activity, worldwide, going back over 40 years!

Posted by CO2-Exhaler | Report as abusive
 

I am astonished (reading the above comments) that there’s still anyone out there who doesn’t believe that Israel will attack Iran unless its nuclear programme comes under proper scrutiny to guarantee that it cannot produce a nuclear bomb. Such an attack will happen within months if the other measures don’t work. I am flabbergasted (again reading the above comments) that anybody should think that a nuclear-armed Iran is not a threat to the United States. Such an opinion can only be based on world view trapped somewhere back in the 1950s. In particular, it ignores the history of asymmetric terrorist activity, worldwide, going back over 40 years!

Posted by CO2-Exhaler | Report as abusive
 

Just one comment.

I have been on numerous sites regarding Iran and Israel as I believe this is the most important issue of my time. If you say it’s “all about the economy stupid”, I say an attack on Iran is all “about the economy stupid” for obvious reasons.

This is the first site that has intelligent conversation that isn’t “Israelis firster’s” stuff although that is my fervent belief. Good discussion and I will come back often.

And yes, Israel is the problem both in the Middle East, but more importantly, for US foreign relations. It is not the Israeli people, but Netanyahu and its Likud coalition government that are the danger to a peaceful settlement of this issue (Palestine/Israel)where Iran may seek a nuclear weapon (understandable given their outside threats) and where Israel has 200-300 nuclear weapons and 3 means of delivering the same to counter that threat.

Posted by dsteh | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •