Republicans Keep Shifting Targets: Iran Now in the Crosshairs

1. Republicans having troubles ‘finding their voice’

Although there is time for some kind of a comeback, at present, the Republican Party campaign to win back the U.S. presidency continues to implode almost daily. The three most likely candidates at this point – Romney, Santorum and Gingrich – continue to duke it out nationwide. Each of the three contenders has struck stunning blows to their opponents, the result being all three have lost the temporary momentum each once enjoyed. Now, some nine months before the election, it’s difficult to see how the Republicans can turn the situation around.

The Republicans have had difficulty ‘finding the issue’ that might ride both them individually and the Republican campaign to victory. There is already talk of a possible stealth candidate emerging at the Republican convention, but even then, it will probably be too late to affect the outcome without some ‘dramatic’ event.

Early in the campaign, when the contenders were vying for the Christian fundamentalist vote, the target of their outrage was none other than Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory of natural selection. It didn’t work very well. Besides revealing a stunning level of ignorance concerning both the man and his theory, the issue garnered them little traction outside of their narrow base, and it was, both for the Republican Party and the country as a whole, something of an embarrassment.

The target then shifted to Barack Obama’s obligatory national health insurance plan, admittedly more relevant and open to criticism than Darwin’s finches or his musings on British domesticated pigeons. But the issue isn’t producing the kind of results which have given the Republicans momentum either. While only tangentially related, the uproar against the Komen ‘Race for the Cure’ decision to cut off funding for breast cancer screenings to Planned Parenthood suggests an American population quite edgy about any possible cuts in healthcare services.

U.S. presence in the Middle East.

U.S. presence in the Middle East.

2. Rallying round war with Iran to save the Republican campaign?

So the candidates are now – minus Ron Paul – looking for a miracle issue to save the campaign and seem to be rallying around going to war with Iran.

The blast of media propaganda concerning the ‘Iranian threat’ has been intense and disingenuous. All serious studies suggest that, like the so-called Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is fabricated. The goal is ‘regime change’ – a term itself that hides the essence of U.S. (and Israeli) foreign policy: overthrowing a government that for whatever reason represents a regional challenge.

So much of the energy to push the Obama Administration into an armed conflict with Iran is coming from the neo-conservatives and AIPAC, Christians United For Israeli, etc. (the pro-Israeli lobby) here in the United States and from Israel itself. The Israeli lobby has also worked long and intimately with the representatives of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), so much so that the two speak with one voice and are active together lobbying Congress to push it to adopt a pro-war position with Iran.

The MEK is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. Congress, accused of carrying out terrorist attacks in the past, including against U.S. citizens. There is evidence that with the help of Israel the MEK has carried out five assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. In Iraq, for some time, Israel has been very active in Kurdistan working with the MEK and other groups to destabilize the Iranian regime. This past week it was leaked by unnamed top U.S. officials – as if it were something new – that Israel has financed, trained and armed an array of dissident Iranian groups to carry out terrorist attacks on Iranian soil.

The Republican candidates have embraced this approach to a degree almost comical, each one tripping over the others’ feet to prove who is more hawkish, more pro-Israeli. They reason that if the war becomes a mess, it could hurt Obama the way the failed hostage rescue mission destroyed Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term in 1980. A very dangerous course.

3. Obama tries to cool down the tensions he had previously exacerbated

Unfortunately, Obama has acceded to these pressures by yet again intensifying the sanctions against Iran, this time placing more restrictions on Iran’s central bank that handles oil revenues. Combine that with continued allegations from the Iranians of U.S. (and Israeli) special forces missions (of course denied) and drone over-flights and, and so as not to appear ‘soft on Iran’, it would seem that Obama, too, is pushing the envelope with Teheran to keep the Republicans at bay.

But as the rhetoric ratchets up on both sides it is reaching a dangerous boiling point and Obama is backing off. He seems now to want to dampen some of the hysterical rhetoric pushing the United States (and/or Israel) into an outright military confrontation with Iran. He is motivated not so much for reasons of principle, but to avoid any international incident out of his control that might affect his re-election possibilities.

While the sanctions are ratcheted up, U.S. Special Forces already on Iranian soil are doing untold – and unreported – damage; Iranian nuclear scientists are being assassinated, Obama does not want the situation to evolve into a full blown military confrontation…yet preferring to maintain the conflict on the level of a ‘cold’ rather than a ‘hot’ war. News of attacks on Israeli embassy targets in India, Georgia and Thailand only underline how tense and dangerous the Middle East region is becoming. The cold war, indeed, is not very cold, and getting rapidly warmer.

Recent clear statements by both Obama and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta emphasizing that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program (rather startling admissions given the sanctions and general vilification of Iran) and that Obama still hopes for a negotiated settlement are meant to dampen the ardor of the likes of John Bolton and Binyamin Netanyahu. The fact that Obama has been a relatively weak president when facing down the neo-conservative agenda for the region and Netanyahu’s intransigence mean his calls for calm may not be heeded.

Likewise, the leak from the Obama Administration accusing Israel of involvement with the MEK in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists is meant to put both the neo-conservatives here and the Israelis on notice to rein in some of their anti-Iranian rhetoric…at least until after November 2012. Given Syria’s strategic relationship with Iran, as long as Syria is in turmoil, Obama has yet another reason to delay attacking Iran. Why not break Iran ‘one leg at a time’? First the Syrian leg before the Iran backbone? No need to attack Iran if the weakening of the regime can come through a collapse of Assad’s regime. But then Iraq is not Libya and it does not appear that the Assad Regime – as undemocratic as any in the region – is about collapse.

All this suggests Obama will try to avoid an “October Surprise” that entails unleashing an open and unrestrained military conflict with Iran, but that the Republicans, who have their own independent ties with both the U.S. military and the Israelis, could very well try to foment something. The chances of a Republican candidate winning in November look dimmer and dimmer as Romney, Santorum and Gingrich essentially self-destruct. Each day it continues, and as the economy slightly improves, Obama’s ratings inch back up in the polls. With Republican chances looking less likely, they will have to come up with something quite special from their bag of tricks.

The problem with all this is the rhetoric has reached such a heated level it is possible that war will be provoked anyway, despite Obama’s late but welcomed attempts to cool things down. There are still a number of wild cards out there that could come into play. It is not only the U.S. and Israel that can engage in pre-emptive strikes. Iran can, too. Perhaps this is what the policy is about anyway: push Iran to the brink so that it sees no option for itself other than military defense. Israel may think even if the U.S. opposes military action on its part, that if Israel strikes, regardless, the U.S. will come to its aid.

Nasty stuff.

The consequences of a war with Iran have been spelled out repeatedly by others – a spike in the price of oil, probable end to the weak global recovery, a conflagration that could draw in the region and beyond, pleasing no one other than those two wacko spiritual cousins – John Hagee and John Bolton. ‘Rational’ explanations of why the United States (and/or Israel) will not attack Iran in the foreseeable future make the most sense…but who knows?

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.