Barack Obama is a very risk-averse president, particularly when it comes to situations where he has publicly set red lines and where force is implicitly or explicitly threatened. In these situations, he seems determined to go to considerable lengths to avoid having to make good on his own warnings. This was the case with the use of Syria’s chemical weapons and in Iran too.
Nobody really wants a war with Iran—not even Israel. And certainly not Obama. The president has three preferred nos when it comes to Iran: no Israeli military strike, no U.S. strike, and no Iranian nuke on his watch.
This trio can only be accomplished through creating a process of negotiation that prevents Israel from striking and makes it unnecessary for Washington to do so. Iran and the United States share the first two goals, and the president is determined to ensure they remain on the same pages on number three, too.
And that’s the rub. Presidents think in four- and eight-year increments; Iranians and Israelis for that matter think in longer terms. Iran should be happy that the threat of military force is receding; Israel is unhappy for the same reason. If Iran plays its cards smartly and doesn’t stick the nuclear issue in Obama’s face, Tehran hopes, the international community’s urgency in pressing ahead on sanctions will fade. Congress might hold the line, but the Russians, Chinese and many others won’t. And over time, the sanctions will diminish in effectiveness. But Iran, having mastered the process of how to make nukes, will always have this capacity and can move to operationalize it if chooses to do so.