The latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program is a particularly bad piece of news for an Obama administration that is already coping with other brushfires in the Middle East. If President Barack Obama is re-elected next year, then Iran will very likely cross the nuclear finish line on his watch. Given the “musical chairs” nature of U.S. politics, where the person left standing when the music stops loses, the blame for Tehran getting the bomb will fall squarely on Obama’s shoulders, even though one could quite fairly apportion a fair share to the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Since 2009, the Obama administration has been struggling to find an effective yet low-cost way to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. During the 2008 presidential campaign, there were suggestions about using diplomacy to find some sort of “grand bargain”: In return for U.S. security guarantees and economic incentives, Iran would accept stricter IAEA safeguards more likely to prevent weaponization of its civilian nuclear program. After taking office, when the administration’s initial diplomatic initiatives didn’t work, it shifted to a three-track approach.
The first track was to get other countries to sign on to tougher economic sanctions -- both through the U.N. process and through unilaterally adopting more stringent measures designed to choke off Iran’s ability to access markets and sources of financing. But that effort seems to have reached its limits, with Russia and China now unlikely to accept further commercial sacrifices -- Iran is a major trading partner of both countries -- to try and prevent it from joining the nuclear club.