Iran Is Obama’s Top Foreign Policy Challenge; Conflict Risks To Rise In 2013

Halting Iran’s nuclear programme is US President Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenge. Regular readers of Risk Watchdog and Business Monitor Online will recall that in November 2010, we argued that neither the US nor Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities over the next two years, which effectively meant before the 2012 US presidential election or the end of 2012. This view was not necessarily out of consensus, but it was bold to make such a prediction and apply it to a two-year timeframe, especially when alarmist stories warning of imminent war would appear from time to time.

So now that the US election is out of the way, what happens next? We believe that there are two electoral factors to watch in the first half of 2013.

Israeli Election Could Provide ‘Mandate’ For War…

Firstly, Israel will hold a general election on January 22, 2013, and we expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to win. Netanyahu has long maintained tough rhetoric towards Iran, portraying a nuclear Tehran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. If he wins with a convincing margin, he could interpret this as a ‘mandate’ for military action against Iran and use this to override domestic opposition (including from within the national security establishment) and US objections to airstrikes. The apparent Israeli airstrike on a weapons factory in Khartoum, Sudan, on October 24, 2012, appears to have been a warning to the Iranian regime of Israel’s military reach.

…But Iranian Election Could Give Reason For Pause

That said, the Iranian presidential election in June 2013 could give Israel reason to hold off. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not eligible for a further term, meaning that there will be a new president. Meanwhile, deteriorating economic conditions in Iran are likely to make the public increasingly dissatisfied with the regime. Therefore, Iran’s relatively moderate reformers could aim to capitalise on these negative circumstances and revive the opposition, which has been heavily suppressed since failing to overturn the results of the disputed 2009 presidential election that gave Ahmadinejad a second term.

If Israel were to bomb Iran before the June election, then this would almost certainly cause the Iranian public to rally around the regime, at least in the near term, and allow the hardliners to portray the ‘moderates’ and ‘reformers’ as foreign stooges in league with Tehran’s enemies. In short, this would be a huge setback for the reformers and democracy activists.

Of course, we acknowledge the possibility that Israel has already concluded that the moderates pose a minimal challenge to the Iranian regime, and that the June 2013 election is not a factor in Netanyahu’s decision-making.

What Of Obama?

Barack Obama has stated that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, but at the same time he has shown great reluctance to take the US into another South West Asian war, which has claimed 4,500 American lives in Iraq and 2,000 in Afghanistan. We generally assume that his reluctance for military action thus far was heavily influenced by his desire to prevent a new war that would drive up oil prices sharply, thereby worsening the global and US economy.

Now that he has been re-elected, Obama is free of electoral concerns. That hardly means that he will rush into war. There are still good reasons to avoid military action, especially since there is speculation that Washington and Tehran will hold a new round of direct negotiations soon.

But what if these fail? Obama could also find that circumstances change beyond his ability to control them. Recall that in his first term, Bill Clinton was very reluctant to undertake US military intervention in the Balkans, for fear of a politically damaging quagmire ahead of the 1996 election. After he was re-elected, Clinton found himself becoming a hawk, taking the US and its NATO allies into an 11-week air war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 over its violent crackdown on separatists in Kosovo. By the end of that conflict, preparations were underway for a ground invasion.

This time around, the US is much weaker, economically and geopolitically, than in 1999, which was arguably the zenith of American global power. This implies that Obama must act with caution. Yet, the US could still find itself sucked into a Middle Eastern war instigated by Israel in 2013.