|Ahmadinejad Inserting Fuel Rod|
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Will Iran Dash President Obama Re-Election Hopes?
The U.S. presidential election, which until now has been mostly about economics, may soon turn into a referendum on who is best qualified to respond to the growing crisis with Iran.
As Iran moves closer to developing a nuclear weapon, and increasingly belligerent toward efforts to thwart those plans, the campaign themes of the past few months may suddenly take a back seat to a more dramatic development.
At the pace thing are going, the threat of at least some military action – perhaps before the election -- seems imminently possible. If that happens, concerns over who pays what in taxes and what to do about health care reform will seem small potatoes. The threat from Iran will move front and center.
I cannot, of course, predict whether Iran will sponsor an attack on American soil in the next few months, nor whether President Obama might order a pre-emptive strike. The hope, of course, is for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But the signs of a possible military confrontation are growing. Hoping to prevent Iran from getting the bomb without resorting to military action, U.S. officials are ratcheting up economic sanctions. Those tougher sanctions, in turn, have prompted more defiance.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inserted the first-ever Iranian-produced nuclear fuel rods into a research reactor in Tehran. The publicity was orchestrated to suggest nuclear progress. Meanwhile, Iran has reportedly threatened to cut off oil supplies to several European nations in response to the recent round of sanctions.
Bombs attributed to Iran went off in India, Thailand and Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Several weeks ago, Iran tried through a surrogate agent to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Several Iranian scientists tied to the nuclear program have recently been killed, possibly by Israelis.
And back in January, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the sea lane for ships carrying oil from the Persian Gulf. If carried out, such action would have sent oil-dependent economies into a tailspin. In response, U.S. warships sailed through the strait.
U.S. officials believe Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have suggested publicly that Israel may carry out a preemptive strike against potential Iranian nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as this spring. If such plans are carried out, Iranian anger would be directed not only at the Israelis, but also against the U.S., Israel’s ally.
Were a direct military conflict were to break out, the U.S. presidential election would be thrown into turmoil. But what would happen if there is a terrorist act here, or a preemptive military strike on the Iranians – or if the Iranians announce that they have developed one or two nuclear bombs? How might that change the election campaign?
Surely, a credible threat of war, or an attack would simplify what candidates talk about. Many voters don't understand the complexities of payroll tax extensions, how and why capital gains should be taxed, and how to best deliver healthcare. But the threat of war, like an imminent hanging, clears the mind wonderfully.
President Obama may well scrap his current campaign strategy. The very rich versus the rest of us will no longer hold the public’s attention.
Not without irony, a change of focus from the economy to a threat of war or an actual terrorist attack would make the 2012 election a mirror image of what happened four years ago. In the run-up to the 2008 election, the focus was almost entirely on George W. Bush’s handling of the war on terror and the war in Iraq.
Then, suddenly, the financial meltdown struck. Voters got a look at how then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain might handle the crisis. Barack Obama did his homework and was able to articulate how he might respond. McCain failed to show a grasp of what was happening financially.
This time around, President Obama, who campaigned four years ago as a peace candidate, would emphasize his record of keeping the country safe militarily. He would remind voters that Osama bin Laden was captured and killed on his watch.
All previous suggestions of closing Guantánamo would be shunted aside. President Obama would also cast his recently proposed cuts to the defense budget as plans to make the military leaner and meaner.
The Republicans, by contrast, would offer up one of two visions, at least before a nominee is selected. Rep. Ron Paul will repeat his assertion that the U.S. should not be involved overseas. He will maintain that our interference in the Middle East prompted Iran to respond. But Paul holds a minority view, and will not represent the mainstream Republican argument.
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum can be expected to offer voters a muscular response. Republicans also can be expected to suggest that President Obama’s policies, from his conciliatory approaches to Muslim nations to his promotion of defense cuts, have invited Iran’s aggressive actions.
Aggressive actions from Iran would likely benefit Rick Santorum’s campaign more than Mitt Romney’s. Romney comes across as a competent technocrat, good at what he does, but not particularly pugnacious. Santorum, by contrast, often seems like he's looking for a fight. Voters may decide that they prefer mean over nice.
A sudden crisis with Iran would also make Newt Gingrich increasingly irrelevant. That is, if the former speaker hasn’t dropped out by then. Some GOP voters like Gingrich for his gift of beating up the liberal media. But he is perceived as erratic, and not trustworthy for the steady hand that is needed to deal with a foreign foe.
Meanwhile, if the confrontation with Iran results in military action, gas prices will climb. The price of gasoline has nearly doubled since President Obama took office. But with a sharp confrontation or military action, oil supplies would drop sharply. Prices at the pump would jump.
Any sharp increase in gasoline prices can be expected to hurt the incumbent.
Again, the hope is that the growing crisis with Iran does not result in military action, and that Iran will peacefully surrender its nuclear ambitions. But the presidential candidates would do well to consider various scenarios as Iran moves closer to getting the bomb – and the race for the White House moves into its final laps.