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Obama Walks a Line on Iran

President Barack Obama is sharpening his rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program but hopes to put off a possible war — and with it the potential for soaring gas prices and massive political fallout — until after his re-election.

“The United States will always have Israel’s back,” Obama said in a joint appearance Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office that focused on the threat of Iranian nuclear capability. “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it,” he said.

But he also made it clear he does not see an imminent need for war. “We do believe there’s still a window to resolve this crisis via diplomatic channels, but Iran has to make a decision.”

The strategy for the White House seems simple enough: convince the Israelis to hold off on attacking Iran while stepped-up sanctions take effect and hope that the Iranians come to the table. And if war ultimately becomes necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, delay an attack as long as possible — a year or more — given the enormous costs and risks involved.

But executing that strategy is no slam dunk, and Obama will face competing political pressures along the way.

Despite Obama’s beefed-up talk of keeping military options on the table — aimed at assuring the Israelis that the United States will act if necessary — there’s no guarantee Israel will wait or that Iran will respond to sanctions in a positive way. A senior administration official speculated Monday that Iran might be provoking the conflict in part to drive up the price of oil — its main source of income.

In the meantime, the pressure is increasing on the White House. Iran, more than any other foreign policy issue, is one where Republicans see an opening to attack. The GOP presidential candidates — with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) — have harshly criticized Obama  for not explicitly threatening a military attack.

Obama pushed back in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday in which he warned against “loose talk” of war, which he said has contributed to recent spikes in oil prices that are already a hot issue on the campaign trail.

But in that speech, and again Monday with Netanyahu, Obama said the policy of the United States was not to contain a nuclear Iran, but to prevent it from getting a weapon — and he said military options are on the table.

Still, the Oval Office appearance seemed awkward, as the two leaders emphasized far different points even as they sought to portray a unified front.

Obama emphasized their joint desire to see a diplomatic solution.

But Netanyahu praised Obama for defending Israel’s right to defend itself and didn’t mention diplomacy or sanctions.

“Israel must defend itself,” he said, looking at Obama. “My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

The duo spent two hours in a meeting and then continued discussions during an extended lunch in the State Dining Room.

Senior administration officials said that the president made clear to Netanyahu the seriousness with which he takes the issue — although they demurred on questions about Israel’s own timetable for a strike. An official said it would take Iran about a year or so to create a weapon if it made a concerted effort to do so, leaving time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. That official also warned of the enormous costs of a war, from soaring oil prices to the risk of sending soldiers back into harm’s way.

Left unsaid were the political implications. One of Obama’s biggest applause lines at every fundraiser he attends is his decision to end the war in Iraq and draw down forces in Afghanistan. And the last thing the administration needs is a war and a subsequent spike in gas prices right before the elections.

Outside the White House, hawks are pushing for Obama to make an even more explicit pledge of war if Iran persists in its nuclear program — and to also take action to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally.

“There is nothing more harmful to our chances of stopping Iran peacefully than the suspicion that, in the end, we will give up and let them have nuclear weapons,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said. “It is time for us to make an ironclad pledge to our friends and enemies: The United States will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability — by peaceful means if we possibly can, but with military force if we absolutely must.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for airstrikes against Syria and to set up safe havens for Syrian rebels. U.S. officials said recently that they suspect Iran of aiding the Syrian regime in its violent crackdown on protesters and armed rebels.

“Who do we want to win in Syria, our friends or our enemies?” McCain asked.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that the administration’s insistence that “all options are on the table” has lost its meaning and committed to introducing a use of force resolution against Iran if it pursues a bomb.

“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” McConnell said.

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