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On the face of it, Iran ought not to be a source of much partisan strife. Few on even the far left or far right are going to say anything nice about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his mullah masters, or be willing to defend the Islamic republic’s support for terrorism throughout the Middle East, including its sponsorship of Hizbullah and alliance with Hamas.
And what reasonable person is not scared to death of the idea of Tehran achieving its ambition of acquiring nuclear capability, in addition to the possibility that it would have within its grasp a weapon that would make its oft-stated goal of eradicating the State of Israel a very real possibility?
But that notwithstanding, the administration’s push to start putting pressure on Iran to back away from its nuclear program is not exactly generating across the board support.
That became apparent this month after President Bush’s statement that a nuclear Iran could lead directly to World War III. Further reporting in many newspapers pointed to Vice President Dick Cheney as one of the main advocates in the administration of strong action to stop Tehran.
Yet rather than regarding Bush’s ultimatum as a sensible warning to Ahmadinejad, the reaction from many in the chattering and political classes was close to panic.
In response, a New York Times editorial spoke as if the nation’s leaders needed to be committed to a mental institution. And on the campaign trail, an unexceptional White House-backed measure to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization became the subject of a highly charged debate between the Democratic candidates for president.
When the Senate voted on the measure, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, acting like someone who actually believes she will become commander-in-chief, voted yes. But two of her challengers, Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, voted no. Former senator and fellow presidential hopeful John Edwards joined them in chiding Hillary because they consider it a first step toward granting Bush the power to wage war on Iran.
While Clinton stood her ground, she couched the defense of her vote in such a way as to possibly preclude any support for the future use of force against Iran. This might be put down as just a tempest in a primary teapot, but there is every indication that anger over this vote is something Clinton’s opponents will be seeking to tap into, especially as her lead in the polls widens.
All of which means that rather than a point of consensus, the need to stop Iran is likely to become a wedge issue in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, since many of those who will vote in them are actually more afraid of Bush than they are of Iran.
Liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen acknowledged this when he wrote recently to support the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Noting that Iran is responsible not only for terror in Iraq but for the massacre of scores of Jewish victims in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, Cohen sees the growing opposition to a strong stance against Iran as a rerun of the crippling defeatism that sapped the will of Britain and France to resist Hitler in the 1930’s. He blames this all on Bush and Cheney, whose pre-war statements on Iraq have engendered cynicism about intelligence matters and Middle East-based threats.
Whether or not the administration deserves all of the blame here, what Cohen was acknowledging is that the demon-like status of Bush and Cheney that has become a cornerstone of partisan rhetoric is now the greatest obstacle to mobilizing support for action on Iran.
Like Cohen, you can dump on Bush all you want for the mistakes in Iraq and the stalemate in Afghanistan while giving him no credit for anything. But for those who understand what a nuclear Iran will mean, accepting this situation is not an option. So long as many on the left and even some in the center view anything that the administration supports as inherently evil, it’s going to mean the campaign to pressure Iran will be a divisive issue that will inevitably fail.
Knowledgeable observers see Clinton as being more than willing to support the use of U.S. power against a terrorist state – provided she’s the one ordering the use of force and not Bush. If she wins next November, that will be a reasonable position once she’s sworn in as president in January 2009. Yet Clinton will be pressed in the intervening 15 months to distance herself from anything Bush does.
But the problem, as Bush noted last month, is that the stakes involved in Iran being allowed to do what it likes involve the possibility of mass murder.
While all those interested in stopping Tehran want desperately to avoid the use of force, the likelihood of meaningful UN economic sanctions being enacted is slim to none. With China and especially Russia backing him up, Ahmadinejad can cheerfully thumb his nose at Bush. The only hope that this can be changed is if our European allies – and our Russian and Chinese antagonists – no longer perceive Bush as isolated on this issue.
If Hillary Clinton were to stop apologizing for winding up on the same side as Bush on Iran and instead begin talking more about the cost that American failure on this issue would entail, it could not only strengthen her future position as president but also serve to rally international support for sanctions now while they still have some small chance of working.
Waiting for 2009 to make Iran a consensus issue may appeal to some partisans, but the interests of the nation and international peace require that it be moved up on the agenda.
Like it or not, both Clinton and pro-Israel Democrats need this to be one issue on which they are willing to support Bush now.
About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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