Obama steers cautiously on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Jerusalem 1 August 2012 Benjamin Netanyahu and Leon Panetta met in Jerusalem at the beginning of the month

Everyone agrees this November's presidential election is about "the economy, stupid".

US President Barack Obama will be hoping that conventional wisdom is not upset by events outside his control.

Not because America's unsteady recovery is such fertile ground for him, but because the alternative would probably be far worse. The president wants his foreign policy boast to be that he has ended two wars, not started two new ones.

If Israel bombed Iran it would rather overshadow the latest unemployment figures, and present the president with unattractive choices.

Nor does he want the situation in Syria to spiral downwards even further, until American military entanglement seems inevitable.

So, part of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's job at the moment is to keep the lid on and keep American forces out of action - and he reinforced that point at a Pentagon news conference.

He smiled a thin smile as he was asked about the likelihood of an Israel attack, and repeatedly twisted his fingers together as the reporter finished his question.

He said: "I don't believe they've made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time.

"Obviously, they're an independent, sovereign country. They'll ultimately make decisions based on what they think is in their national security interest. But I don't believe they made that decision at this time."

Narrowing windows

This may mean simply that he does not think the hawks, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have yet garnered all the cabinet votes they need - and that could be about to change. Or not.

Mr Panetta has just come back from a trip to the region, which is again awash with rumours that an attack is just weeks away - a view the government there does little to discourage.

However, Mr Panetta said: "The reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate. The additional sanctions have been put in place. They're beginning to have an additional impact on top of the other sanctions that have been placed there."

That was, no doubt, the argument he put to Israel's leaders, and it was no accident that he said he agreed with the Israeli prime minister that "any kind of military action ought to be the last alternative, not the first".

Asked if the window for such military action was "almost shut", he said, "the window is still open to try to work towards a diplomatic solution".

The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who was by his side, said that Israel might have capacities he did not know about, but added: "I think that it's a fair characterisation to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities."

All this talk of narrowing windows is because of the idea that there is a point of no return, when Iran has put any enriched uranium deep enough underground that it is out of reach of Israeli bombs.

But it is also about the election timetable. Some say Mr Obama would be more likely to support any action before an election. Afterwards, if re-elected, he would have more options.

When it came to Syria, Mr Panetta said that a no fly zone "was not on the front burner". While he confirmed the Pentagon was looking at military options, he sounded distinctly unenthusiastic about them, stressing that America was planning alongside its allies.

But he mentioned Iran in this context as well, saying it was obvious that they were playing a "larger role" in Syria and that their "growing presence" was a "deep concern".

He said they were adding to the killing by training pro-government militia and that was "dangerous".

There is a cynical view that sometimes a small war can help in the middle of an election.

But it would be hard to keep any conflict with Iran contained and many think, apart from the actual rights and wrongs, it would bring huge uncertainty and destabilise the already shaky world economy.

I have no doubt Mr Obama's preference for avoiding widespread conflict is heartfelt, but it is tactical as well.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Bible also predicts that they will persecute Christians for our beliefs including being against same sex marriage
    which is what is happening now

    Just today


    Christians have to be stronger than ever in our support against same sex marriage

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Sheldon Adelson has as much right to purchase the White House and influence our foreign policy as I do!
    I do not have the money, so the equality of each voter does not exist now that corporations have the right to purchase representation with $'s & individuals can purchase foreign policy to represent their personal view of the world
    Where are the rights accorded by the constitution to "the People"

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Candidate Romney took a very large step in the direction of the Radical Tea Party with his choice of running mate
    Mr. Ryan met today with Sheldon Adelson who has publicly stated his intent to purchase the White House at any cost
    The future of the nation is dependent on the ethical standards of members of congress
    Congress' ethical standards have been compromised by Corporate $'s and party rhetoric

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    J-i-D: good to hear from you. Hope you enjoyed the OOOOO Games.

    Your point is well taken. How that meshes with his socialism/communism/islamism previously decried here remains unclear.

    In my naive optimisn wrt to the human condition, I continue to live in hope of making a better world through reason, and shall cast bread upon the waters, even though they be tar sands tailings ponds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    If: that homophobia and xenophobia are luxuries we cannot afford

    Thats why its wrong for us to elect Obama again

    Looney: President Obama inherited

    Obama had the chance to save millions of American lives via universal health care- and he didn't

    Actions speak louder than words

    Every illegal you see in the line being legalized by Obama
    represents an American losing their job

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    If: suffering the worst drought in 75 years

    Which is just what the Bible predicts

    Bible also predicts that they will persecute Christians for our beliefs including being against same sex marriage
    which is what is happening now

    If: work

    Considering that millions of Americans are unemployed
    its ironic Obama is legalizing millions of illegal foreigners
    so they can vote+take our jobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    160 Interestedforeigner

    IF - you are attempting logical argument with a person who recently announced here that Obama was a fascist dictator and the Antichrist as foretold in Revelations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    It takes a pretty limited view to conclude that a President is responsible for the debt that was created by a previous administration
    President Obama has created an economy that is growing and expanding in spite of the debilitating effects of a congress that cannot agree on anything and has done everything within their power to block jobs and growth despite the damage their refusal causes people

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    I see the most polarizing Congress in History that refuses to compromise on ANY issue
    A congress that ignores the needs of "The People" whom they made an oath to represent
    No party member who took the oath of office swore to represent their party at the expense of the people
    President Obama inherited two unfunded wars and a deregulated financial system that imploded & caused a World Wide Recession

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    If: its about priorities

    Its about being moderate+compromise

    As I said the moderate compromise is Civil Unions w/ the same rights

    But Dems reject moderate compromise b/c they are too polarized

    The problem w/ Obama is that he is leading our country the wrong way+that he refuses to be moderate or compromise

    Obama is the most polarizing President in the history of USA

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    162 Lucy

    "This is about Obama wanting to take away American culture/tradition+change the definition of marriage"

    Who wants a culture where the president defines or wants to change such personal matters that are of concern only to the individual? What next? A one-child-only dictum like China? A medal for women to have lots of children like in the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.


    More than half the counties in the US are suffering the worst drought in 75 years. Global warming is here, now, sooner and worse than anyone predicted. The economic consequences are huge.

    When people can't afford food, or find work, you will realize that protecting our environment is important, and that homophobia and xenophobia are luxuries we cannot afford.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I am an Independent. I do not want to be associated with any one who objects to two people being in a committed legal marriage regardless of their gender.
    Quoting the bible does not cut it for me. The bible condones slavery and many other things that society has grown beyond.
    Religions were and are created by people for the gain of people only
    I believe GOD created us all, in all our imperfections

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.


    Important things:
    Survival of the planet.
    Preventing US going broke because nobody is paying taxes.
    Preventing soc. sec. and medicare from going broke.

    Not important:

    How are you injured, in any way, because your neighbours, in the quiet of their own home, are gay?

    How does illegal immigration affect you, other than by making produce less expensive?

    It's about priorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    If: more important than survival of planet?

    I would rather vote for someone who is bad enviromentally
    than someone who supports same sex marriage
    b/c I believe thats the wrong direction to take our country

    This is not about the bedroom
    This is about Obama wanting to take away American culture/tradition+change the definition of marriage

    To be moderate- Civil unions are a compromise

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    McJ: Romney admin would probably do worse

    Romney turned deficit to surplus in both Utah Olympics 02'+state of Massachusetts

    Obama helped Illinois rack up debt+made things worse

    Illinois put our trust in Chicago Democrats+what did it get us?

    The highest indebted state in all of USA

    If Obama is elected another term USA will be just like what Chicago Dems did to Illinois

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    157,159 L:

    1968 Trudeau, Min of Justice: "Government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."

    Voting for GOP is voting to let oil companies destroy the planet.

    Is your homophobia and xenophobia more important than survival of planet?

    How can it matter a tinker's cuss what your neighbours do in the privacy of their own bedroom? How is that any of your business or mine?

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.


    Since I know now that neither political party will pass universal health care or will expire Bush tax cuts
    I must vote for what direction I want my country to head toward

    Democrats do not accept people like me into their party
    b/c I am against same sex marriage+against illegal immigration
    which is why I have to vote Repub

    IN going red+if IL didn't have Chicago we would be red 2

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Cont'd: Big ironies:
    1. Shah refused to give BP oil back, kept nationalized.
    2. 1956, UK invaded at Suez to control Iranian oil supply route. Eisenhower pulled plug. UK bewildered: Overthrow Mossadegh ok, Nasser not ok?
    3. UK found North Sea oil.

    Mossadegh ouster pointless.
    Cost: 60 years of evil; millions dead; $100s B ($Trns?) spent on war; now desperate to contain Iran a-bomb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    If: extremists purge moderates

    Dem is same as GOP now in terms of polarization-
    Did you hear about Biden's "Romney will put you in Chains" comment?
    Or Obama's ad making fun of Romney for singing a patriotic song?

    The polarized Democrat party now shuns people like me for being against same sex marriage even tho Obama's stance in 2008 was that he did not support same sex marriage


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