U.S. Election-Year Politics Raise Stakes in Iran Confrontation

By Sanger, David E | International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

U.S. Election-Year Politics Raise Stakes in Iran Confrontation


Sanger, David E, International Herald Tribune


Every country involved in the dispute over Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons is calculating how the U.S. presidential election plays to their agendas.

A Democratic president running in a bitterly disputed presidential race faces a fateful national security decision: whether to approve an airstrike to thwart an adversary bent on becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Conservative hawks deride the president as weak. In the West Wing, advisers debate the risks: a strike could lead to open conflict, but doing nothing would change the balance of power in a volatile, war-prone region.

The president was Lyndon B. Johnson, and less than three weeks before Election Day in 1964, the Chinese rendered the White House discussion moot by setting off their first nuclear test. "China will commit neither the error of adventurism, nor the error of capitulation," the government of Mao Zedong told the world that morning, heralding the first Asian nation to get the bomb.

Mr. Johnson defeated Barry M. Goldwater in the election anyway, after a campaign in which -- oddly enough, given the attack being contemplated -- he tarred the Arizona conservative as a warmonger in the infamous black-and-white "daisy" television spot, featuring a young girl counting the petals of a flower, unaware of impending nuclear doom.

Historical analogies are always dangerous when it comes to presidential elections and nuclear geopolitics, so comparisons to the Obama administration's calculus in the escalating confrontation with Iran call to mind the caution that history does not repeat, it rhymes. The election-year nuclear brinkmanship game was tricky enough in the Cold War; the Chinese test was partly a warning to the Soviet Union, and Washington had even considered inviting Moscow to join in any strike.

But think of the multipolar chess President Barack Obama is now playing. Every country involved in the dispute over Iran's possibly acquiring nuclear weapons is calculating how the U.S. presidential election plays to its agenda. The politics of soaring oil prices loom over any threat of military conflict, even a brief skirmish in the Strait of Hormuz.

And with global economic turmoil a reality and leadership changes possible or certain this year in the United States, Russia, China and France -- and the European Union moving closer to imposing a phased oil embargo on Iran and some form of narrow sanctions against transactions with Iran's central bank -- the game gets even more complex.

Start with the Iranians themselves. They have studied China's example, and the case of Pakistan, which faced severe economic sanctions -- urged foremost by the United States -- for its pursuit of the bomb. But in both cases, once those countries conducted a test, the world adjusted to the new reality.

Less than a half century later, China is the world's second- largest economy, and no one messes with it. As soon as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened, the sanctions against Pakistan disappeared; suddenly the United States cared about cooperation in hunting down Al Qaeda more than it cared about Pakistan's dangerous export of bomb technology, including to Iran.

"From the perception of the Iranians, life may look better on the other side of the mushroom cloud," said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He may be right: while the Obama administration has vowed that it would never tolerate Iran as a nuclear weapons state, a few officials admit that they may have to settle for a "nuclear capable" Iran that has the technology, the nuclear fuel and the expertise to become a nuclear power in a matter of weeks or months.

No one can get inside the head of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Mr. Takeyh notes that his pattern of behavior over the past decade has been to push the nuclear program ahead "systematically but cautiously," slowly raising the temperature but until now avoiding major crises. …

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