The Obama administration’s national security team must walk a very delicate tightrope on Iran policy in the weeks to come. On the one hand, it must convince doubters in Iran, Israel and the U.S. Congress that the administration is prepared to use force if necessary to stop Iran from mastering the technologies needed to construct nuclear weapons. If the different factions within the Islamic Republic are not convinced that President Barack Obama is prepared to pull the proverbial trigger, they have no incentive to return to the negotiating table. And if the U.S. commitment to accept the use of force as an option is suspect in Israel, it may strengthen those within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government who argue that Israel should go ahead with a unilateral strike. And finally, if Congress doubts the president’s resolve, it might force the president’s hand until he has no choice but to undertake a strike, a temptation that has been growing on Capitol Hill in recent months.
On the other hand, the last thing that a president facing re-election needs is a foreign policy crisis that could potentially erase all of the hard-won economic gains that have been achieved in recent months. Any military confrontation with Iran would interrupt oil supplies from the Persian Gulf and could easily cause global prices to spike by at least 20 percent. The resulting increases in the price of gasoline in the United States would wipe out any gains American consumers have seen as a result of the recovery, and there tends to be a direct correlation between increases in prices at the pump and decreases in the popularity of the incumbent president.
With talks between Iran and the P5+1 group -- comprised of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany -- set to begin in Geneva on April 13, an interesting bellwether will be whether global oil prices are affected. If, heeding Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that it is better to “jaw-jaw” than to “war-war,” they begin to soften as the negotiations continue, it will give the Obama administration a major incentive to keep the diplomatic process going, with the argument being that all avenues short of war ought to be exhausted in the search for a settlement. It would also likely mean that Washington will make no effort to try and impose any sort of rigid conditions for the talks, such as demanding immediate progress on a set of issues to keep negotiators at the table. Some observers are interpreting the rather vague language used by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in his Nowruz message to mean that there might be room for a diplomatic solution if the Islamic Republic is approached in a “respectful” manner by Western interlocutors.