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Obama Walks a Line on Iran

Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images
An Oval Office appearance Monday of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed awkward, as the two leaders emphasized far different points even as they sought to portray a unified front over Iran’s nuclear program.

President Barack Obama is sharpening his rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program but hopes to put off a possible war — and with it the potential for soaring gas prices and massive political fallout — until after his re-election.

“The United States will always have Israel’s back,” Obama said in a joint appearance Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office that focused on the threat of Iranian nuclear capability. “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it,” he said.

But he also made it clear he does not see an imminent need for war. “We do believe there’s still a window to resolve this crisis via diplomatic channels, but Iran has to make a decision.”

The strategy for the White House seems simple enough: convince the Israelis to hold off on attacking Iran while stepped-up sanctions take effect and hope that the Iranians come to the table. And if war ultimately becomes necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, delay an attack as long as possible — a year or more — given the enormous costs and risks involved.

But executing that strategy is no slam dunk, and Obama will face competing political pressures along the way.

Despite Obama’s beefed-up talk of keeping military options on the table — aimed at assuring the Israelis that the United States will act if necessary — there’s no guarantee Israel will wait or that Iran will respond to sanctions in a positive way. A senior administration official speculated Monday that Iran might be provoking the conflict in part to drive up the price of oil — its main source of income.

In the meantime, the pressure is increasing on the White House. Iran, more than any other foreign policy issue, is one where Republicans see an opening to attack. The GOP presidential candidates — with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) — have harshly criticized Obama  for not explicitly threatening a military attack.

Obama pushed back in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday in which he warned against “loose talk” of war, which he said has contributed to recent spikes in oil prices that are already a hot issue on the campaign trail.

But in that speech, and again Monday with Netanyahu, Obama said the policy of the United States was not to contain a nuclear Iran, but to prevent it from getting a weapon — and he said military options are on the table.

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