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The Iran Threat

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In the course of arguing that we shouldn't be surprised if President Obama starts a war with Iran, Elliott Abrams writes:

So if the president means what he has repeatedly said about world affairs, what is at stake is whether he leaves a legacy of disaster -- again, in his own eyes. In my eyes, he would be right in so concluding: the real issue in the Middle East today is whether we, the United States, will remain "top country" in the region or will allow Iran to claim some form of hegemony.

This is a useful reminder that for most of Washington - even in its most alarmist corners - the real threat from Iran is not nuclear bombs going off in Western cities, the wiping of Israel off the map or anything close to that. It's the possible threat Iran poses to America's "top country" status in the Middle East.

Wars have frequently been waged for balance-of-power concerns, but in this case, how significant would the balance of power shift out of America's favor? Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is not the top country on the subcontinent - it can barely curtail its own home grown insurgency and it was threatened/cajoled by the U.S. to allow us to bomb portions of the country almost at will. North Korea has nuclear weapons and you'd be laughed out of a room if you suggested they had anything resembling "hegemony" in Asia.

Iran with a crude nuclear weapon would still be poor, weak and surrounded by unfriendly states. The U.S., by contrast, would not be.

UPDATE: Karim Sadjadpour looks at the politics of Abrams' argument (that an attack would benefit Obama domestically) and finds it wanting:

On the basis of this information, I would conclude that, whereas Iran now has a seemingly negligible impact on daily American life, an attack on Iran -- which would cause oil prices to skyrocket to unprecedented levels (perhaps $200 barrel) -- would have a significantly adverse impact on the daily lives of Americans.

At a time when the unemployment rate is above 10 percent and economic recovery is tenuous, I can't image that $5-per-gallon gasoline would auger well for Obama and the Democrats.

If I were Plouffe or Axelrod, my sense of urgency about taking action against Iran would be further tempered by the facts that: a) the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy has been an effort to stabilize Afghanistan and draw down troops in Iraq, and bombing Iran would make both tasks doubly difficult; b) one of the reasons why Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries was his opposition to, and her support for, the Iraq war, and bombing Iran would alienate, rather than energize, the Democratic base; and c) by all accounts, Iran does not have the wherewithal to develop and test a nuclear bomb before November 2012 (assuming that it wants to).

(AP Photo)