What would be the mother-of-all-nightmares for Barack Obama before next year's presidential election? A nuclear-armed Iran.
President Obama has declared he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. But his options are limited.
A strike against Iran's nuclear installations? That would mean starting another war in the midst of the U.S. election campaign. Unlikely.
Persuading Israel not to do the job? For Israel, a nuclear-armed Tehran is a potential death sentence. Reining Israel in is unlikely.
Accepting the reality of an Iran with nuclear weapons, but warning Tehran against using them? Possible, but dangerously weak-looking for an American president up for re-election who promised not to let this happen.
I hope someone in the White House is working on this. I hope Iran is not able to do it.
Iran may have overcome the problem of the "Stuxnet-worm," planted, by probably you-know-who, to cause their centrifuges to run wild. Iranian nuclear scientists may have substantially accelerated their ability to produce a type of nuclear fuel enabling them to produce bomb-grade material in a hurry. William Hague, the British foreign minister, speculated recently that when enough 20 percent enriched uranium is accumulated, it would take "only two or three months to convert this into weapons-grade material."
What better time for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon than the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign, when the American president is hobbled in his options?
Could Iran be so foolishly provocative? Reason would say no. But can we count on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mad hatter of Iranian politics, currently embroiled in a shoving match with Ayatollah Khamenei for power, to be rational?
Endless American and European negotiations with Iran to halt its suspected race to acquire nuclear weapons have gone nowhere. Tougher sanctions have caused some Iranian discomfort but no cessation of nuclear development. Russia has proposed a new approach, but it involves no tougher sanctions. Russia has major economic interests in Iran and will not be party to any further screw-turning. Indeed, the Russian plan is for a step-by-step curtailment of the existing sanctions to reward Iran if it addresses international concerns about its nuclear program. In other words, more carrot and less stick.
For a regime that seeks to impose its will upon the Islamic world, Iran's leaders must be in a calculating mode. Iran is a lingering autocracy in the midst of upheaval throughout the Arab world. It is estranged from many of its own people, whose Green Movement may be dormant but not dead. Syria, its most important ally, may be lost as a platform for projecting support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. There are reports that Iran has been offering its advice to the Syrian regime on how to repress social media networks and put down opposition demonstrations, but the outcome is uncertain.
As it takes stock of its role in the Islamic world, the Iranian regime must ponder how its friends and enemies in the region would react to its possession of nuclear weaponry. Saudi Arabia would be appalled and probably seek nuclear weapons itself. Syria, which has itself sought to develop a nuclear program, would presumably laud Iran so long as the al-Assad regime is in control. An unfortunate consequence could be nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East.
Although many Muslims deplore much about the Iranian regime, a surprising number, both inside and outside Iran, might laud an Iranian nuclear breakthrough. I remember how many strongly anti-communist Chinese throughout Southeast Asia celebrated with vigor when communist China joined the nuclear weapons club. They were not celebrating communism. They were celebrating Chinese prowess.
Some Muslims might react similarly.
With the exception of his gutsy decision to take out Bin Laden, President Obama — fairly or unfairly — has gained a reputation for being weak-kneed in foreign affairs. He should send a confidential message to Iran's leaders that he would react strongly in the event of an election-eve Iranian nuclear surprise.
John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.