Is Iran a game changer?

What follows is an excerpt adapted from Shmuel Rosner’s book “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney, A Jewish Voter’s Guide,” published by Jewish Journal Books and available through

Would President Barack Obama be willing to use all necessary means to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb? In 2012 we are way beyond the theoretical question of “engagement” — Obama tried to engage Iran, failed, changed course and imposed severe sanctions.

Now, he has a foreign policy record that one can examine. On the one hand, there are his repeated attempts to engage Muslim and Arab countries, not always bearing fruit. On the other hand, there is his uncompromising approach to killing terrorists, especially in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Obama ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden and got credit for it from both political friends and foes. He supported and orchestrated American involvement in the war to topple Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, leading it, as critics are always happy to remind, “from behind.” He abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and decided not to intervene in Syria. He made good (or bad, depending on one’s view) on his pledge to pull America away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A mixed record, about which the public seems quite comfortable: Obama’s foreign policy approval numbers are much better than his numbers in other areas.  

The immediate question is whether sanctions will suffice to make Iran cave. In the months leading to the beginning of the official campaign, warnings from Israel were stark, and the attempt by the Obama administration to convince Israel to wait patiently for the sanctions to work was also clearly visible.

Whether Israel should attack Iran or not is not an easy question to answer. While the public gets to hear the conflicting views of officials and former officials on this matter, it doesn’t have the required information with which to form an opinion that carries much weight. This is, of course, problematic.

One has to wonder: Why is it that the Israeli military establishment is up in arms against an imminent attack? What do they know that we don’t? Would we have a better way of assessing the situation if we knew what “they” know? To form an opinion on this matter, one must delve into a couple of crucial questions that need answering.

Clearly, it is better for the world and the region if Iran does not have nuclear weapons. Very few people would argue that an Iran with nuclear capability would actually contribute to global stability (there are in fact very few such people).

However, assuming that a nuclearized Iran is dangerous, one still has to contemplate the following: How dangerous, and dangerous to whom? Is it dangerous enough to justify a long and very costly war? There are many dangerous threats, but not all justify such action. Thus, one has to try to assess these two questions: 1. Will the future damage caused by a nuclear Iran be much greater than the damage of a war? 2. How likely is it that such damage would materialize? An imminent war is, well, imminent. But a future danger is fuzzier. Should Israel go to war now, because of a danger that might not occur later?

It is reasonable to assume that if Iran is most dangerous to Israel — Israel will be the one most eager to take military action against Iran. The U.S. is Israel’s ally, but that doesn’t mean it will go to war for something that is not a crucial American interest. As Israel contemplated Obama’s urging for a delay of military action, it had to consider the possibility that, for Obama, Iran might never be urgent enough to launch a war, and that he might change his position on the severity of the threat the way he changed his position on meeting with the president of Iran.

In recent months, the Israeli government has been consistently declaring that the range of sanctions against Iran is a failure and that while Iran is hurting, it is not getting any closer to caving. In fact — Israel has been saying — while the world is busy with employing more sanctions and is feeling good about doing something, the Iranians are moving forward with their program.

Other Israeli and other international players are more hopeful about the sanctions. They can’t yet say that sanctions are working — since the Iranians haven’t yet given in. But people around the world (and some in Israel as well) do believe that the current course of nonviolent coercion might lead to some kind of breakthrough.

So the obvious question is: Can the combination of tough sanctions and tough talk stop Iran? And this isn’t the only question. One should also consider the ticking clock as the wait for sanctions to do the trick continues. In other words: Does Israel have time to wait for the sanctions to work? Clearly, Israel’s clock is ticking faster than that of the Americans.

While the United States might have the time to wait, and only act in the case of ultimate failure of sanctions, Israel — with its smaller military and more limited resources — might not have the time to wait. Hence, the apprehension — exacerbated by Israeli lack of trust in Obama.

Thus, another question comes to the fore: Can Israel forget about its problematic clock, if the United States guarantees that no matter what happens, no matter what other countries might be saying, no matter what the circumstances might be — American force will prevent a nuclear Iran? Clearly, there are three problems with such guarantee: 1. No American leader would give such a promise. 2. Israel has no way of making sure such a promise is fulfilled (bluntly put, it has no way of punishing America if the promise is broken). 3. Israel has clarified time and again in words and deeds that it will never sub-contract its essential security (on the other hand: Israel constantly relies on American support for its security — so maybe the “we-will-defend-ourselves” mantra is no more than empty bravado?).‎

Would Israel change its habitual behavior and have faith in the pledge of an American president? And what if Israelis deem this president untrustworthy? Does it matter if it is a President Obama or a candidate Romney who makes such a promise?

Any promise of commitment can take many forms. It can be a commitment to act, or a commitment to stop Iran, or a commitment not to interfere with Israeli action, or to support it, or not to reprimand Israel for any action it might take. As one ponders the question of military capabilities, one has to think not just about the initial attack but also the aftermath: Does Israel base its post-strike planning on the assumption that the U.S. will be joining the battle later in the game — both to defend Israel, but also to prevent Iran from rebuilding its sites? And what happens if the United States refuses to play such a role?

Would the United States suffice with denouncing Israel, or would it retaliate in some way? A lot depends on the outcome of an Israeli attack. If it’s very successful, and no harm is done to American interests, one could probably expect mostly the admiration of Americans. However, if it goes badly, and if American interests are hurt, and if the crisis drags down the economy without the benefit of having tamed Iran — the damage to the relations could be serious.

And that’s why no serious discussion of the Jewish politics of the American 2012 election can be complete without some consideration of the Iran factor.

Iran is one of the topics that the Republican candidate could have hoped would sway American Jewish opinion away from Obama. In Romney’s version of events, Obama confuses aggressor and victim, and is pressuring Israel to refrain from attacking Iran rather than offering support.

“It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war,” Romney said in his speech in Jerusalem in mid-summer. “The opposite is true.”

Without committing to future policies — Romney is a cautious candidate — his message to Jewish Americans concerning Iran is clear: You can’t trust the man who already threw Israel “under the bus” on as crucial a matter as Iran.

Fifty-six percent of Jewish Americans said in early 2012 that they are “very concerned” with “the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”  Thirty-seven percent of respondents also said that they “disapprove” of Obama on this matter — that is a fairly high number for a relatively Democratic group — and the same percentage said that the Republican Party is “more likely to make the right decision” on Iran. American Jews seem skeptical about the ability of sanctions and diplomacy to achieve success, and 64 percent said they’d support “military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons” should diplomacy fail (in another poll, 59 percent agreed to military action in the event of diplomatic failure). As with most such issues, Jews trending Republican tend to support an attack more than Democratic Jews, and they are also those most concerned with Iran and those who have the least confidence in Obama.  

But can Iran really be the key with which Romney can take support away from Obama? Some additional information needs to be considered before such conclusion can be reached. The first piece: Only a meager 4 percent of American Jews listed Iran as their most important voting issue, with 15 percent listing it as first, second or third priority. This means that only about one quarter of those proclaiming to be very concerned about Iran would be willing to put their ballot where their mouth is, and vote for the man — be it Obama or Romney — they deem more suitable to deal with Iran.

But even for those convinced at the time the poll was taken that Iran should be a top voting issue, or who have been becoming more convinced since, the debate over Iran is probably baffling. Assuming they support an Israeli attack — do they support it happening now? Assuming they don’t believe in sanctions — would they scrap that even before Election Day? Assuming they would like to cast their vote for the American candidate that is more likely to make the right decision on Iran — what is the right decision? Even from Israel, the message is far from clear. The government seems to be saying one thing, while Israeli President Shimon Peres is saying something else entirely.

This leaves all interpretations of policy viable. If one wants to be reassured that voting for Obama is voting for the right policy on Iran — one can easily find an American or an Israeli expert who is making this exact argument. If one wants to be persuaded that only a Romney presidency and policy can stop Iran’s nuclear race — one can also easily find the experts to support this completely opposite view.

If Iran is to be a game changer, then, it will be one only if Iran is attacked before November, only if Israel decides to forgo the Obama advice and go it alone, forcing a burning Middle East on the conscience of the American voter. Will that make Obama look bad, or prophetic? Will it force him into supporting Israel and silence all critics arguing that he isn’t supportive enough? Will it have any influence on Jewish voters? Even then, how such a move will influence the voters is far from clear.

Shmuel Rosner is Senior Political Editor.