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Magazine / THE COOK REPORT

Iran, the Wild Card

A conflict involving Iran doesn’t look as likely as it once did, but it still could upend the presidential race.

Getting ready? Iranian troops.(AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

photo of Charlie Cook
May 3, 2012

One distinct possibility in this election year has always been that a major international incident, very possibly in the Middle East, could push a close presidential election decisively in one direction or the other. An air strike by Israel, the United States, or both, against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear-weapons capability has been the most widely speculated flash point in the region.

Over the past year, Republican presidential candidates have frequently talked about Iran on the campaign trail. More than a few members of the pro-Israel community in the United States see President Obama as an unreliable ally. They view him as much less supportive of Israel than President George W. Bush was.

The GOP presidential contenders, with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul, attacked Obama relentlessly on the subject. Just a few months ago, it seemed entirely plausible that Obama could get boxed into supporting such an attack on Iran whether he wanted to or not.

 

An international incident, particularly an attack in the Middle East, could have a huge, but unpredictable, effect on the race between Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney. The very real possibility of a clash with Iran, the general political instability in the region, and turmoil in Yemen and the Sudan, have been major factors in the increase in worldwide oil prices. Thus, the international political situation has contributed to the rise of domestic gasoline prices over the past year, with obvious economic and political implications.

According to The New York Times, top Israeli and U.S. intelligence and military officials agree that Iran has suspended its nuclear-weapons program. They believe that Iran unquestionably had an active program but some time ago stopped short of taking advanced steps to create weapons.

Some well-placed foreign-policy officials of close U.S. allies also share this view. In the past two weeks, current and very recent Israel intelligence and military officials have publicly made these points.

These officials’ statements contrast starkly with those of Israel’s political leaders, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who see Iran’s nuclear capability as an immediate and existential threat to their country.

The growing consensus that Iran is no longer actively developing nuclear weapons and  that the Persian nation is facing increased economic hardship—with an embargo slated to begin on July 1—has lessened fears of an imminent attack on Iran.

This is one reason, along with rising Saudi and domestic U.S. oil production and diminished demand, for the recent drop in oil prices. The American Automobile Association’s latest Daily Fuel Gauge Report indicates that the national average for regular-grade gasoline is $3.81 a gallon, 12 cents below the $3.93 of a month ago. It is also 13 cents below the average of a year ago.

The perceived threat of war is lower, helping to bring gas prices down some. We don’t know, though, whether prices will continue to drop in the coming months or stay relatively high until Election Day. The combination of the fourth-warmest winter on record and historically low natural-gas prices has significantly diminished home-heating costs for many Americans this year, and that has worked to offset spiking gasoline prices during the winter months.

So, for now, the threat of major military action in the Middle East before November 6 is less likely than it was just a few months ago. It’s just unclear whether the odds have declined enough to create a peace dividend in the form of lower oil and gasoline prices in the next six months.

Foreign-policy insiders don’t think that Obama will participate in, or support, a unilateral attack on Iran unless he is convinced that Iran is on the cusp of developing a nuclear-weapons capability. But they are equally certain that he would act if intelligence showed that capability is drawing near.

The insiders say that a knee-jerk reaction to protect Israel wouldn’t motivate Obama. The president, they believe, is worried that if Iran developed a nuclear-weapons capability, other countries in the region would immediately go on the market to acquire their own nuclear capabilities from Pakistan or elsewhere, triggering an arms race on his watch that he would consider abhorrent and unacceptable.

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