Will Iran be the wild card in presidential election?

As reports circulate about an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iranian progress toward building a nuclear weapon, issues of foreign policy and
November 16, 2011

As reports circulate about an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iranian progress toward building a nuclear weapon, issues of foreign policy and Israel may find their way back into a presidential election season that has thus far been dominated by the economy. If Iran’s nuclear program emerges as a major issue, it will be problematic both for President Barack Obama and for his Republican challengers.

Jewish voters, of course, have a deep concern over Iran’s ability to threaten Israel with a nuclear bomb. While most Americans are focused on the ailing economy, Jews have an eye out for Israel’s security.

Since being bolstered by the removal of Saddam Hussein, once Iran’s most dangerous regional enemy, Iran is on the rise.

The last several weeks have seen a great deal of movement on the Iran issue. Along with the IAEA report, Israel has allowed the public to eavesdrop on an internal debate about whether to attack Iranian nuclear installations. This discussion would normally be kept secret, but Israel is clearly sending a message to the United States and others that if toughened sanctions do not work, an attack is likely. An explosion at an Iranian missile plant was widely considered to be the work of Israel, which apparently has been conducting a series of covert actions against Iranian targets. These attacks also may have included the implanting of a computer virus. 

Despite the Obama administration’s numerous successes in foreign policy, the urgency of the economic crisis has dominated the conversation. Ironically, this is the rare election season in which a Democrat has the edge on foreign policy more than on domestic policy. Yet, any statements by the White House that seem to downplay the domestic economy in favor of touting global successes could backfire politically.

Republicans have been more comfortable talking about the struggling economy than about foreign policy.  Foreign policy, normally a Republican edge, is not working as well for them this year — Obama’s successful assaults on Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists have made him hard to challenge. There also are few real party differences on foreign policy, compared to the yawning and fundamental chasm on economic policy. On foreign policy,  party differences tend to be rhetorical and symbolic, with Republicans calling for belligerence, American dominance and clear victories, no matter how complex the situation. This leads to oddities, such as Michele Bachmann first charging that Obama has surrendered to terrorism and then springing to his defense (although not by name) for his targeted killings of terrorist leaders.

But as much as both parties want to ignore foreign policy, the world doesn’t always cooperate with American electoral calculations. A low-level conflict with Iran already seems to be under way, and it could escalate before the election.

Obama’s rocky relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu was highlighted by the open microphone gaffe with French president Nicolas Sarkozy when both presidents shared their frustrations with the Israeli prime minister. More importantly, though, it is perhaps under-recognized that Obama has given Israel more militarily than his predecessor George W. Bush ever did, in particular bunker-buster bombs that could hit Iranian nuclear sites.

There are some clues from the Nov. 12 Republican debate on foreign policy on how the Republican side of the discussion of the Iranian question might play out. Anything that resembled bluster earned applause from the party base. Anything that seemed like a reasoned analysis, such as when Rick Santorum, and even Michele Bachmann, tried to explain how hard it is to deal with a mixed-motive ally like Pakistan, drew a dead audience response.

Mitt Romney’s best line was, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will get a nuclear weapon. If we elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not.” The implication was that Romney would be able to force Iran to back down. But would he? Republican presidential contenders like to say the president needs to listen to commanders on the ground. Are they aware that the top military brass are against a preemptive attack on Iran, and that the president would have to overrule them to do so? And American voters do not seem eager for another war, just as Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down.

Nevertheless, Obama has a tough case to make for his own approach. His foreign policy is based on speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Rhetorically, it’s no match for Republican belligerence. He cannot bluster from the White House, nor can he promise that a conflict with Iran would bring about a nice, neat victory. He has to show that all the steps short of war that the United States has taken — giving bunker busters to Israel, pressuring allies to make sanctions work and diplomatically isolating Iran — will prevent the need for an attack. Finally, he has to be convincing both at home and in Iran’s eyes that, should all else fail, he has drawn a firm line that he will stick to with regard to Iranian nuclear capability.

Because of Obama’s style, which seems to be more forceful behind the scenes than in public, Iran may make a miscalculation, such as happened before in the Middle East, in 1967 and 1973, that a politically vulnerable American president (first Lyndon Johnson, then Richard Nixon) would abandon Israel in a crisis. Both presidents came mightily to an imperiled Israel’s aid.

Obama will argue that the Iran situation is more complicated than his opponents suggest, but subtlety is a difficult sell. Republicans have, since the Chinese Revolution in 1949, made hay out of topics like “Who lost China?” That question obsessed Johnson, who feared that if he pulled out of the disastrous Vietnam War, he would face the same question about Vietnam.

The prospect of a nuclear Iran goes beyond electoral politics. Despite Obama’s many successes against terrorism, and his leadership in the defeat of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Iran is likely to be the defining test of the Obama doctrine. Finding the right path and the right language to address this growing problem is going to take every ounce of the president’s strength, intellect and consistency, all in the midst of a tightly contested presidential election. But he must do so, both for the good of America and for its ally Israel.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

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