The Confrontation with Iran in the Calculations of Presidential Candidates

11/06/2007 09:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iran has begun to take the place of Iraq as a leading topic of interest in the early stage of the US presidential election campaign. Attention is shifting from the actual war that the US is waging in Iraq to scenarios for war with Iran, most of which involve military strikes at the infrastructure of the Iranian regime and its nuclear facilities. There is considerable division and confusion among the public and within the Democratic and Republican parties. Although the majority of Americans are angry at the administration of George W. Bush because of its war in Iraq, half of Americans, at the least, support military strikes against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear military capacity, according to the polls. The other half are made up of a majority that only knows it hates what the US administration is doing in Iraq and blames it for beating the drums for a war with Iran, and a minority that calls for dialogue between the White House and the Iranian government, with no conditions, and bases its expectations on the good intentions of Iran. Seasoned observers of election campaigns expect the need of the US voter for a president able to protect national security will grow, especially during a period of anxiety about the situation in Iraq and fears about Iran's nuclear aspirations. This means that the candidates who play on hatred of the hawks in Bush's administration and speak critically of extremism might find themselves suddenly confronting a hawkish public opinion, demanding guarantees of national security and sole superpower status. Most Americans do not want to submit to the blackmail of the US predicament in Iraq and do not want the US to be demeaned; they support the country no matter how much they oppose the administration and are upset with the president. Certainly a portion of Americans want to leave Iraq and the Middle East, and support US isolationism instead of waging wars and generating hostility to Americans. There is also a portion of the public that believes it's too late for this option, and that the US cannot submit to intimidation or running away from a threat.

There are many important differences between the situation four years ago, when the administration acted unilaterally to invade and occupy Iraq, and the situation today, with its imminent, studied confrontation with Iran in the person of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling institution, and rhetoric such as that used by Ali Fahdavi, Deputy Commander of IRGC Naval Force, to build up the Bassij religious militia that "martyrdom" militias will be able to block navigation in the Gulf and the strategic Straits of Hormuz. The majority of Americans do not want to see the US gamble by going it alone in its war with Iran. They do not want an invasion or an occupation. They do not want to resort to military action before diplomatic options and negotiations are thoroughly attempted. However, this majority also doesn't want negotiations for the sake of negotiations, as Iran takes steps to acquire military nuclear capability. This majority doesn't want Ahmadinejad to act arrogantly regarding America's national security and don't want the US military to remain quiet and cover up the targeting of US troops in Iraq by the Revolutionary Guard via its octopus-like relations.

The White House has announced sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and those dealing with them; this is a warning to all that this is the last phase of diplomacy. These sanctions will hurt those states and firms that have assumed that they can continue to trade and be partners with the Islamic Republic, while continuing at the same time their relationship with US financial institutions. It is a warning to China and Russia that the patience of the US is beginning to run out. These bilateral sanctions are not only in fact a harsh message involving harmful measures to Iran, but also a call to China and Russia to take the matter seriously. If conditions deteriorate and lead to military operations against Iran, the US administration will be able to blame Russia and China for stalling when it came to being firm with Tehran and evade what was previously agreed to by the remaining members of the UN Security Council regarding gradual sanctions if Tehran continues to reject the suspension of uranium enrichment, as stipulated by UN Security Council resolutions.

The positions of Russia and China might mislead Iran more than helping it, if Moscow in particular continues to reject the implementation of its promises and refuses to exercise serious pressure on Iran to halt its maneuvering. Also, the positions taken by the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohammed El-Baradei, are as dangerous as they are misleading to the Iranian government; these stances are leading it into thinking that El-Baradei will protect it from being held accountable, and that in the end it will be able to arrive at a "big deal" regarding the relationship of the Islamic Republic with the west in general and the US in particular.

If El-Baradei is able to obtain promises from Iran to halt its use of regional cards, in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, at the expense of Iraqis, Palestinians and Lebanese, perhaps he will be able to go to the US and the west with a package of elements of this "big deal." If he is able to extract firm promises that Iran will accept all of the constraints on its nuclear program, and halt the supplying of militias with arms and weapons in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, he will then deserve a big Nobel peace prize. But if he acts on the basis that there is no option other than dismantling the Security Council's decision by removing the demand of "suspension" of uranium enrichment, so that the Iranian regime can save face, he will be encouraging this regime toward arrogance and will be misleading it as well. The dangerous thing is that Dr. El-Baradei might be misleading, whether or not on purpose, Arab public opinion with his stances on the Iranian nuclear issue and the tone of confrontation that he adopts with the west in general and the White House in particular. If he believes that he will be an Arab and Muslim hero, why doesn't he use his position to ask for putting the question of Israel's possession of nuclear weapons on the table?

El-Baradei and the Russian leadership can use their influence with Iran to notify Tehran of the seriousness of a countdown to measures being taken against it, if it continues to challenge the west and be obstinate regarding the nuclear issue, and in escalation, providing arms, and incitement on other regional fronts. By doing this they would save the Middle East from a number of wars, not just military strikes against Iran. These strikes, if they come, will not just be American; there are indications of the readiness of a number of European states to support the US' moves. Thus, on the contrary to what took place in the Iraq war, the decision and the US measure will not be unilateral; they will follow the exhaustion of all means of preserving a consensus in the Security Council and all diplomatic attempts, including sanctions, to end the crisis. Therefore, the Russian and Chinese leaderships should understand the message and head toward a serious and important discussion with the US, France and Britain, as well as Germany, about the necessary qualitative jump in how to deal with Iran. The time of maneuvering, grandstanding and negotiations about trifle issues has ended, and it is now time to talk about big deals.

American candidates in the primaries, despite the grandstanding among them, all hope that the Iran crisis is dealt with in one way or another and that they do not inherit the Iranian issue as it stands today. Some of them, such as Democrat Barack Obama, avoid providing a clear answer about what to do with Iran. Some, like Republican Rudy Giulani, make fiery statements and surround themselves with neo-conservative advisors, including those who have deep hostility to anything that is Arab or Muslim.

If we think about a candidate who would be able to protect American national security, there is talk of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain; both talk about protecting national security, each in his or her way, and both can be classified as quasi-hawks that are necessary and logical at a time when the US needs a strong president, not a dove that doesn't know how to fly.

None of the Democrats have put forward a cohesive and clear program that answers the important question with the necessary frankness and depth: What to do about Iran? McCain has taken positions that angered some of the public, when he supported increasing the number of US troops in Iraq, thus taking a brave stance of leadership and adherence to what he believes in. His biggest enemy is that he hasn't raised enough money to run a campaign that has a year to go. In a time of fear of coming wars, American voters might come up with some non-traditional surprises and select the person who allows them to feel safe and a bit secure. Hillary Clinton is hated to a certain extent, and she is a leading candidate for the position of showing the decisive and required leadership to guarantee US national security, and has enough money for her campaign. However, the Democrats' control of Congress, in addition to a series of mistakes by the Democratic leadership of Congress, might lead to a decision that might appear astonishing, as American voters are afraid of leaving the country in the hands of one party that is making serious mistakes. Based on this, the election surprise might see the Republicans retain the White House, despite all of the indications that the majority of Americans have a strong desire to throw them out of the White House in anger and protest over what George W Bush has done in Iraq. All of the talk about Social Security, the economy, debt, health insurance, and education is certainly important, but the truth is that Iran is appearing on the surface of the US presidential election, not for the first time. However, on this occasion, Iran will be an element that gathers Americans together because of its excessive behavior.

Israel also has a position in these elections, not just in terms of the peace process and negotiations with the Palestinians, but also in terms of the region's war scenarios. In a report last week to the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 1701, the UN secretary general reported on positions by Israel vis-à-vis the arming of Hezbullah by Syria and Iran, which was intriguing and frightening. Israel said that "the nature of the weapons that the party has and their scope constitute a strategic threat to its security and the safety of its citizens." An interpretation of the language of "strategic threat" traditionally leads to military measures. The smell of coming wars in the air, perhaps, is not a clear indication of the path of the issues guiding this war. There is talk about a third world war, and there is talk of incitement through financial supplies and weapons, for wars that aren't sectarian in the traditional sense, between one sect and another, but sectarian in terms of fighting and killing within the ranks of a single sect.

The White House should be aware of the mistakes of the past, regarding its war against Iraq. It undertook this war by completely ignoring the centrality of treating the Palestinian issue in the minds of Arabs and Muslims. Therefore, it gained hostility to the US, suspicions about its goals, resentment of its adventures, accusations of using double standards, and the lodging of a basic accusation against it: deliberately destroying an Arab state and dismantling it, perhaps dividing the country in order to control oil and guarantee Israel's superiority. Everything said by leading Bush administration figures about the war in order to spread democracy in the Arab world has come across as nonsense in the minds of Arabs. Every time the architects of the war discuss the war against Iraq as being about achieving the goal of a "Shiite power" is interpreted as merely another American investment in inciting sectarian wars and using sectarian division for American ends.

If American voters have the right to affect the administration, or the candidates for president, the first and most important thing they must call for is avoiding the mistakes of provoking Muslims and popular Arab sentiment through determination and showing credible firmness to find a just and permanent solution for the Palestinian issue. Everyone knows that the key to a solution is in the US taking the decision to inform Israel that the time has come to finally agree on what the entire international community supports, the Road Map to establishing a Palestinian state.

There are other, central and fundamental issues for US voters, who must make the effort to understand and absorb their meaning. Lebanon, for example, might appear to be a mere marginal issue in the discussion of American public opinion makers, but in fact it is one of the most important elements of the spider's web, and an arm of the Iran octopus. Perhaps through Lebanon, one of the most important messages can be sent to Iran. Thus, there are those who think that the destination of the necessary US military strike is not necessarily Iran first, but Syria, since it is the vital artery through which Iran's regional aspirations are achieved, and because it is the easiest of targets, as a merely dependent player.