If you're looking for clarity, change the channel now -- you're on the wrong station. When it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, we may be living with great uncertainty for some time to come. Regardless of who's elected president in November, 2013 may be no more determinative in deciding the fate of the mullahs' bomb than 2012 was. And here's why.
For some time now, the Obama administration and the Iranian mullahcracy have shared, indirectly, a common objective: preventing an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear sites.
Even though the mullahs have flaunted the IAEA and much of the international community on the nuclear issue, they've left enough ambiguity about their intentions and demonstrated sufficient interest in negotiations to play for time -- a kind of Tom and Jerry cat-and-mouse game.
And the world's big powers have only been too willing to play along. Nobody wants war when sanctions and the prospects of diplomacy hold out even the slightest hope of changing Iran's course, least of all the United States. In the process of extricating America from two of the longest and most profitless wars in its history, President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to avoid getting America into another one.
Nor, despite some muscular rhetoric on Mitt Romney's part, is there much reason to believe he'd want to quickly green-light an Israeli strike or conduct one of his own. Right now, there's little clarity in the governor's position. Is it Iran's nuclear capacity he seeks to prevent, or the weapon itself?
I suspect that once the Pentagon and CIA go through their horrific ratio-of-risk-to-reward briefings and his political advisors think through the uncertainties that might be triggered in the wake of a U.S. strike, the least of which might be rising oil prices and plunging financial markets, much of Romney's campaign risk readiness will be converted into the more sober risk aversion of governance. Given the domestic challenges that the next American president will face, there's more than a little reason to believe that war with Iran might not be priority No. 1.
Throw in a healthy dose of serious divisions within Israel about the wisdom of an Israeli strike without U.S. approval or the real effectiveness of any military option that doesn't involve America in a major way. Add a pinch of Iranian caginess when it comes to keeping the international community guessing about its nuclear intentions and enrichment levels. And finish it off with a natural American penchant these days for the talking cure instead of a shooting war, and next year may well provide a recipe for diplomacy, not conflict.
The point is: Without an Iran much further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, nobody with the possible exception of Israel -- and again, there's no consensus there, let alone in Washington -- has the inclination, let alone the will, to go to war right now. And while the issue of who's got bigger balls on what to do about Iran has already figured prominently in the campaign and in the debates, caution should be the watchword for now.
If a U.S. president at some point makes a decision that stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon requires military force -- that is to say it is in the highest category of what constitutes America's vital national interest -- he almost certainly will try every conceivable approach before acting, including the possibility of direct secret diplomacy with the mullahs. But I don't think we're there quite yet.