With the release of the International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report (PDF) on Iran's not-so-secret efforts to build a nuclear weapon, talk has once again turned to what actions the U.S. should take to stop them. Sabers are rattling and officials in Israel and Washington are dutifully insisting that "all options remain on the table." Still, there's good reason to believe that the Obama administration will keep one particular option - military force - off the table. Indeed, there are five reasons why it's unlikely that the Obama team will bomb Iran:
1. A Coalition of the Unwilling: The Obama administration has not been averse to using lethal force when it believes U.S. interests are at stake (just ask what's left of al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal region). But when it comes to taking large scale action against another state or regime, the administration has sought to act only with the imprimatur of an international body. In the case of Libya, that entailed both United Nations and Arab League sanction. Neither would be forthcoming for an attack against Iran.
China and Russia have consistently blocked or watered down Western efforts to sanction Iran in the UN Security Council and would almost certainly veto any resolution seen as authorizing the use of force against the Islamic Republic. As for the Arab League, it's still smarting over the NATO mission in Libya, where its support for a mission to protect civilians was interpreted by the UK, France and the U.S. as a license to kill Muammar Gaddafi.
2. It Would Blow a Wider Hole in the Budget: The Obama administration has endorsed (in principle, at least) the necessity of paring back America's debt and deficit over the medium- and long-term. Integral to that effort are planned cuts in the Pentagon's budget and many of the administration's long-term budget forecasts factor in cuts in defense spending, plus costs recouped from the draw downs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent those reductions, America's fiscal outlook appears considerably grimmer.
A war against Iran would blow a huge hole in these plans by piling on additional debt - both upfront, to pay for the war itself, and over the longer-term as the U.S. seeks to manage the fallout from military action inside Iraq and Afghanistan.
3. It Wouldn't Be Leading from Behind: When defending the war in Libya, the Obama administration famously described their approach as "leading from behind." While the phrase quickly became an object of partisan derision, the leadership paradigm itself was practical - marshal a group of like-minded states to share the burdens of an operation, thereby increasing its legitimacy and decreasing the costs to the United States.
A U.S. attack on Iran would subvert this principle. It's true that Iran could eventually threaten the U.S. with long-range missiles or pose a risk to oil shipments through the Gulf (at great cost to its own flagging oil industry), but ultimately Iran is a far more urgent problem for the states in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. These front line states are understandably eager to see American troops and American taxpayers foot the bill for a war against Iran, but there's no reason to believe the administration will indulge them.
4. It Would Be Less Easy to Be Green: The Obama administration came under a fair share of criticism for its response to the "Green Movement" of anti-regime protests that erupted in Iran in June 2009. Whether or not the administration could have done more to aid the protesters, it's hard to see how a military campaign aimed at Iran's nuclear program would boost America's standing with the broad mass of the Iranian public.
First, there's the obvious risk of civilian casualties. Any attack is likely to provoke a nationalist response as Iranians rally around flag. Second, Iran's nuclear program predates the clerical regime and according to opinion polls, is supported by the majority of Iranians. Iranians may not approve of weaponizing their nuclear capability, but would likely take a dim view of any country that destroyed their nuclear infrastructure. To the extent that the administration hopes for a more pro-American movement to ultimately unseat the clerical theocracy, a bombing campaign that claims numerous, innocent, Iranian lives and wrecks infrastructure that Iranians claim to care about is a fairly poor way to go about it.
5. It's the Economy, Stupid: If there's one reason above all others that likely stays the administration's hands it's the impact any prospective war against Iran would have on the U.S. (indeed, the global) economy in the short term. Economies in both Europe and the U.S. are wobbly, if not in outright recession territory. An attack on Iran would open the door for Iranian retaliation targeted at the industrial world's largest vulnerability - the 20 percent of global oil supplies that pass through the narrow chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz. An Iranian attempt to close Hormuz would send oil prices soaring and almost certainly send the Eurozone into a recession (if it's not already there) and push America right back to the brink, or over the edge.
Unless the administration is modeling a future round of stimulus on the U.S. experience in the second World War, any conflict with Iran would suck the oxygen out of what's left of the president's domestic agenda.
Of course, there are important caveats to any list such as this. Chief among them is the plain fact that any decision hinges on events, and some dramatic event or piece of evidence about Iranian intentions could decisively tip the scales toward war. Barring such an event, it's reasonable to conclude that the administration will opt to "contain" Iran by encircling it militarily and isolating it diplomatically. Such a strategy worked well against a far mightier foe in the Soviet Union, and it's likely the administration will reach for that playback instead of the riskier option of military strikes.