WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama may have to decide this year whether to use military force to fulfill his vow to prevent Iran from being able to build nuclear weapons, foreign policy experts say.
But America's economic and military realities argue intensely against attacking the Islamic republic and for muddling through by, perhaps, further tightening sanctions that have cut deeply into Tehran's economy.
Americans are weary of war after more than a decade of military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. economy, while recovering from the Great Recession, still is weak. The military could face deep cuts this year as Congress considers massive reductions in government spending.
What's more, Iran is far stronger militarily than either Iraq or Afghanistan and would undoubtedly strike back by hitting Israel and attacking U.S. soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan. Also, Iran has put much of its nuclear program deep under ground, making it uncertain how much damage could be done by American airstrikes.
Beyond that, the prime advocate for attacking Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just suffered a significant setback in elections and is in a weakened position. Even before the Israeli election, Obama had rebuffed Netanyahu's calls for an attack, saying there's still time for a diplomatic solution.
But time is running out. Experts say Iran has uranium enriched to 20 percent, a level from which it can be converted to weapons-grade fairly quickly. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency says the Iranians are preparing to install faster centrifuges that would speed the process.
"Many people think 2013 is the year of decision as to the question of whether to go to war or strike a conclusive deal to end Iran's nuclear ambitions," said Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
A new report by scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank warns that "the current limited crisis ... may well escalate to a major conflict or a new form of Cold War."
During Obama's first term, the U.S. and its allies imposed damaging economic sanctions on Tehran, but so far the leadership there has shown no willingness to talk seriously about altering a uranium enrichment program that could provide fuel for nuclear weapons. Iran denies it wants to build a bomb, insisting it is creating fuel for electricity-generating reactors and medical research.
Iran has been reluctant to engage, refusing to set a location for a new round of talks that were to have taken place in January, until it announced it would meet on Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan with the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. That group is known as the P-5 + 1, short for the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. It has been trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear activities.
Israel, which Iran has vowed to wipe off the map, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has threatened to unilaterally launch a first strike again Tehran's nuclear facilities. Such an attack would almost certainly draw the United States into another military conflict in the region. But Obama and most Americans have shown no appetite for another war, a fact shown by the president's reluctance to act militarily now and his refusal to involve U.S. forces in the Syrian civil war.
Syria has proven a major distraction for Tehran. If President Bashar Assad is driven from power, Iran could lose its foothold in the Arab world. It uses Syria to funnel arms and money to the anti-Israeli Hezbollah organization that controls southern Lebanon along Israel's northern border and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip on the south.
But Israel's Netanyahu is also distracted after last month's elections, which saw moderate politicians replace some right-wingers in parliament.
"I think that Netanyahu has been sufficiently weakened so that he won't be able to successfully lobby the United States for a green light to attack," said Chris Dolan, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Israeli pressure is no longer, if it ever was, driving Obama's decision-making.
"Our policy toward Iran's nuclear program has been defined by Obama's red lines, not Netanyahu's, meaning that the U.S. isn't likely to use military force unless and until it's clear that Iran is taking active steps to weaponize its program," he said. He was referring to Netanyahu's U.N. speech in September in which he said Iran had already crossed the red line that required military action.
Also, Obama realizes that Iran will have a new president after elections in June, a fact that possibly is causing Iran to drag its feet. The next president will replace hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who denies the World War II Holocaust in which Hitler's Germany killed 6 million Jews.
But in Iran, real power is in the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Students of Iran believe that Khamenei is undecided on using the country's nuclear fuel to build a nuclear weapon. He has said such a weapon was in conflict with Iran's Islamic foundations.
Any future talks will hang on Iran's demand for specific guarantees about easing sanctions in return for dialing back its nuclear program.
Sadjadpour said the outlines of a deal are clear to both sides. He said the unspoken U.S. position is: "You can have a nuclear program which includes uranium enrichment, but not a weapon. If you don't go for the bomb, we won't bomb you."
But, he said, sanctions will not be eased without meaningful compromises. "The problem is that there remains a very large gap in our respective definitions of the word `meaningful.'"
And that could be very dangerous, said Maloney, should there be a deal that goes bad. If that happens Obama "will be forced to put his money where his mouth is," meaning he would be forced to launch a military strike to make good on his vow to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
-- Steven R. Hurst is AP international political writer and has covered foreign affairs for 30 years.