U.S. Elections and Iran

November 3, 2008

Iran will loom large on the agenda of the next American president. After all, dealing with the challenges posed by Iran’s Islamic Republic, particularly its nuclear ambitions and expanding regional influence, ranks among the most urgent security dilemmas for the next US administration. Throughout the campaign, the question of Iran has featured prominently – and occasionally in memorable fashion: Republican candidate John McCain’s mordant humor about bombing Iran and Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s declared willingness to meet personally with Iran’s leadership.

At a basic level, the two contenders share a considerable amount of overlap on Iran. Both Obama and McCain inveigh against any prospect of a nuclear Iran; both endorse efforts to rachet up sanctions to pressure Tehran to alter its problematic policies; and both pledge to reinvigorate international diplomacy while declining to rule out military action to resolve the Iranian threat. Both McCain and Obama would rely on the same tools, including direct negotiations and economic sanctions, that have long characterized American policy toward Iran. With one notable exception – whether any US‐Iranian negotiations should be subject to preconditions – the outlines of the practical policy steps articulated by both candidates are remarkably consistent.

However, that exception betrays a fundamental divergence between the candidates on the conundrum of Iran and the nature of American power in addressing the array of challenges that emanate from the post‐9/11 Middle East. As a result, despite their apparent common ground on Iran, the difference between the two prospective administrations is in fact quite profound, and the approach to Iran pursued by whoever prevails on 4 November will shape the larger context for American interests in the region for the next four years and beyond.

For McCain, the Iranian leadership is impervious to the logic of rational dialogue or deterrence, and bent on destabilizing the entire region. Along with his running‐mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, McCain routinely invokes apocalyptic scenarios to underscore the menace posed by a state that the Republican platform flatly describes as a rogue. McCain has brandished the unlikely specter of Iran indulging in nuclear terrorism, and both members of the Republican ticket have repeatedly referenced the need to prevent another Holocaust, an unambiguous allusion to the Israeli perception – grounded in Tehran’s hostile rhetoric – that the Iranian theocracy poses an existential threat.

For the most part, McCain’s proposed course of action on Iran sounds notably less dramatic than his depiction of the threat. He emphasizes the potential role of a new ‘league of democracies’ in increasing pressure on Tehran, through more robust economic sanctions such as an embargo on Iranian imports of refined oil products, which represent at least 40% of Iran’s gasoline consumption. McCain does not rule out direct talks, and in a recent debate suggested that following appropriate Iranian concessions, he would authorize higher‐level negotiations with Tehran than the Bush Administration has thus far contemplated. But while he emphasizes diplomacy, McCain has also explicitly endorsed the possible use of force against Tehran, declaring that the only thing worse than American military strikes against Iran would be a nucleararmed Iran.

As for Obama, his approach to Iran was crystallized by his declaration during an early debate that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran and other American adversaries. Despite provoking an initial backlash within his own party, this declaration became the centerpiece of an approach that the Democratic nominee has described as “toughminded diplomacy,” a posture he likens to previous US presidents, including Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Obama envisions using direct talks to enhance American leverage, both in persuading Tehran to revise its own policies as well as generating needed international unity for further pressure on Iran.

Like McCain, Obama also refrains from ruling out force, emphasizes the dangerous consequences of an unchecked Iran, and supports many of the same economic measures – such as encouraging private companies to divest from Iran. The Obama campaign has also rejected any prospect of a deal that permits Iran to continue to enrich uranium. Ultimately, though, his assessment of the Iranian threat appears less rooted in the essential nature of the regime than in a critical appraisal of failed US policies in Iraq and on energy that have facilitated Iran’s recent empowerment.

McCain and Obama have attacked one another’s position, and the more energized segments of both political constituencies have highlighted their rival’s Iran position as emblematic of a broader deficiency in his international approach. For Democrats, McCain’s approach to Iran betrays a dangerous militarism, while Republicans see Obama’s embrace of engagement as tantamount to appeasement.

The candidates’ dueling perspective on engagement will shape their actions as well as their interpretations of Iranian actions, and will provide the frame of reference for Washington’s posture across the region. As a result, the differences between them matter profoundly for the future. At the same time, whoever wins the broad contours of American interests in the region will remain consistent, and the forces that have shaped recent American diplomacy toward Iran will continue to constrain the most ambitious agendas of ideologues on either side of the political debate.

Despite qualms about McCain’s itchy trigger finger – which are entirely justified by his appalling levity on the subject of bombing Iran – another Middle Eastern war is unlikely to be high on the agenda for a new Republican administration. Any hard‐liners within a McCain foreign policy apparatus will confront the same unpalatable implications that have thus far restrained the Bush Administration. The limitations of American intelligence leave little confidence that a military strike would conclusively incapacite Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And most American policymakers acknowledge that even a successful military strike would likely further radicalize its leadership and intensify their nuclear quest.

Moreover, there is widespread awareness of the range of negative consequences for American security, such as galvanizing Iranian nationalism behind an unpopular government and the prospects for Iranian retaliation across the region. Every other American security priority – including the revitalization of the Arab‐Israeli peace process, achieving stability in Iraq, and tempering Islamic radicalism across the region – would suffer significant setbacks. The potential fallout would further destabilize the world economy, a prospect that would intensify opposition from American allies in the Gulf.

Any McCain plans for regime change – another ardent fantasy of the neoconservative crowd – would also run aground quickly upon implementation. As the Bush Administration found, the Iranian regime appears firmly entrenched for the foreseeable future, and Washington has negligible capacity to influence Iran’s internal dynamics. The bottom line is that military action or external intervention will not magically become more viable strategies for a McCain administration. And while there is certainly recent precedent for disregarding the obvious potential pitfalls of a Middle Eastern adventure, the obstacles and risks involved with an attack or regime change are too widely appreciated for another American administration to undertake easily.

While it is unlikely that McCain’s Iran policy would fulfill the worst fears of its critics, it is even more improbable that a President Obama would indulge in the kind of concessions toward Tehran that his detractors deplore. Nowhere in their campaign rhetoric have the Democrats suggested that they would readily offer any new incentives to Tehran or relax the comprehensive US sanctions that currently bar any business with Iran. Indeed, Obama’s openness to negotiations merely represents a reversion to the keystone principle of US policy toward Iran for the past three decades. Every American president has endeavoured to deal directly with Iran, and even George W Bush pursued unconditional engagement with Iran following the 9/11 attacks, in the first sustained direct diplomacy between Washington and Tehran since the resolution of the hostage crisis. The only exception to this longstanding precedent was the three years following the 2003 ouster of Saddam Husain, an approach whose failure has been implicitly acknowledged by the Bush administration’s later reversals.

Still, a Democratic administration may face some of the same obstacles that have stymied American efforts to alter Iran’s behaviour. Even during the heyday of the reform movement, Washington’s concerted attempts to engage Tehran in a direct and ongoing dialogue found little success, and the obstinacy of current leaders will further complicate any prospects today. Negotiating with Iran, particularly on issues such as uranium enrichment where Tehran has evidenced little flexibility to date, will be protracted, arduous and subject to reversals. Among both Obama’s critics and his supporters, there should be no illusions about the likelihood of achieving a ‘grand bargain’ with the Islamic Republic in the near term.

Both Obama and McCain may be tempted to indulge in unrealistic expectations about their capacity to mobilize the international community more effectively on the Iran question. However, renewed tensions with Russia and an ongoing global financial crisis mean that the context is not likely to be particularly conducive to any dramatic initiatives to resolve the US‐Iranian estrangement. McCain’s bombastic rhetoric risks escalating tensions in the Gulf and could easily back the Republicans into the same ineffective corner that has hobbled Bush’s diplomacy toward Tehran. Obama’s willingness to talk to Tehran represents a much more promising start, but the mere promise of dialogue will not magically alter Iran’s most problematic policies.

History suggests that engagement is an appropriate and – if undertaken judiciously – a potentially effective tool for addressing America’s deep differences with Tehran. Ultimately, however, how the next US administration handles Iran will be shaped as much by factors outside the individuals and ideologies at stake in November’s presidential elections – whether Tehran can demonstrate that it is finally prepared and to fully rejoin the international community.