WASHINGTON - This election cycle, msnbc.com is presenting a weekly series Briefing Book: Issues '08 assessing issues and controversies that the next president must confront once he takes the oath of office.
This week, we look at the world’s fourth largest oil producer, Iran, governed by an Islamic regime which has been at odds with the United States for nearly 30 years.
Why it’s a problem
Iran has approximately one-tenth of the world’s proven oil reserves, plus more than one-tenth of the world’s reserves of natural gas.
The government of Iran may also be developing nuclear weapons.
In 2006, the United Nation Security Council passed a resolution banning trade with Iran in materials and technology which could contribute to its enrichment of uranium, the material for a possible nuclear weapon.
“Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so,” said a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released by the U.S. spy agencies late last year.
Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the NIE said, but “Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
The Iranians probably would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons sometime after 2010, about two years from now, the NIE reported.
An attack on its nuclear sites could cause Iran to attack shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s total daily oil demand is carried.
Adding to the tension, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said recently that Israel “is about to die and will soon be erased from the geographical scene.”
He also predicted doom for the United States, saying “the time for the fall of the satanic power of the United States has come and the countdown to the annihilation of the emperor of power and wealth has started.”
Iran and the United States have been in conflict since 1979, when America’s ally, the shah of Iran, was forced from power by an Islamic revolution.
Two weeks after the shah entered the United States for cancer treatment, a group of Iranians seized the American embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage.
More recently the United States has accused Iran of supplying explosive devices to Iraqis fighting American soldiers and Marines in Iraq.
Where the candidates stand
Republican John McCain drew fire from his critics in April of 2007 when, during a campaign stop in South Carolina, he seemed to make light of possible military strikes on Iran.
A member of the audience asked McCain when the United States would send an "airmail message" to Iran.
"That old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran," McCain wisecracked and began singing, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb..." to the tune of the 1960's hit, Barbara Ann.
McCain has mocked the idea that Iran might be dissuaded from seeking nuclear weapons by the offer of negotiations with the next president. “The idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history," McCain said.
McCain said Democrat Barack Obama’s willingness to hold direct talks, without preconditions, with the leaders of Iran “betrays the depth of Sen. Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment.”
Obama has charged that U.S. entanglement in Iraq has strengthened Tehran’s influence in the region.
McCain, he said, “has nothing to offer except the naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism.”
Last October Obama said he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran and would offer a possible pledge not to seek “regime change” if Tehran stopped its aid to insurgents in Iraq and if it cooperated on terrorism and revealing details of its nuclear program.
In a speech in June to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Obama said, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
“Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel," he pledged.
The unknown looming above all others: how close is Iran to developing nuclear weapons?
Is it already too late for the UN or the United States to deter Tehran from building a nuclear arsenal? Is a military strike now simply not feasible because Iran’s nuclear research sites are too widely scattered, too well hidden, and too deeply buried? If there were an American or an Israeli strike on Iran, what would be the consequences for the U.S. troops next door in Iraq — and for world oil prices?
Is Tehran’s nuclear program intended only to deter the United States and Israel from attacking Iran? If so, is it having the opposite effect: prompting Israel or the United States to attack?
There are also uncertainties about the thinking of those in charge in Tehran: “Is Iran merely hostile, or is it irrational?” asked Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Deterrence might have little chance of success, if Iran's leaders are not making rational calculations about their national interests.
Referring to the Iranians, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said, "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage... and then sit down and talk to them." But what leverage does the United States have right now?
Would the Iranian rulers see the election of McCain as an indication that nothing had changed in the U.S.-Iran relationship and that no genuine negotiation was possible?
If Obama opened talks with Tehran, would he be able to offer big enough inducements to get Tehran to disclose its nuclear program and stop uranium enrichment?
Evolution and shifts in position
Obama has edged away from his flat commitment last summer to meet without precondition with the leaders of Iran.
When a questioner asked Obama in a 2007 debate whether he’d be willing “to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration,” with the leaders of Iran (and other nations estranged from the United States), he answered, “I would.”
But in late May, Obama said, ''I didn't say that I would meet unconditionally” with Iran’s leaders. He said he would not “just do it for the sake of doing it.”
Then he added in a speech a few weeks later to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing if, and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States."
How they have voted
Both Obama and McCain were absent for a Sept. 26, 2007 vote on a sense of the Senate resolution that the United States should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
McCain assailed Obama for opposing the resolution, which was co-sponsored by McCain Senate allies Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Obama later criticized his then-rival Sen. Hillary Clinton for voting for the resolution, suggesting President Bush might interpret it as a go-ahead for military strike on Iran.
“I don't want to give this president any excuse, or any opening for war," Obama said. “Because as we learned with the authorization of the Iraq War, when you give this president a blank check, you can't be surprised when he cashes it.”
In 2006, Obama voted for, and McCain voted against, an amendment to the proposed U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation accord.
The amendment said the U.S.-India deal could not go forward until India cut off its military-to-military ties with Iran. The amendment was defeated, but the U.S.-India accord now seems likely to collapse, partly due to internal Indian politics.
Surprises for the new president
“It is entirely possible that Iran could test a nuclear weapon during the next president's term,” said Alterman.
“Even more likely, however, is that Iran will have a president who is less outrageous and antagonistic (than Ahmadinejad), vastly complicating U.S. efforts to build an international coalition to manage Iran's possible efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.”
Alterman added that, “In addition, there remains the worrying possibility that U.S. and Iranian forces could clash in the Persian Gulf, either because of an outright error or a probing mission gone awry. The Gulf is a relatively small body of water, and with many warships on high alert, this danger is never far away.”