Analyze This: How partisan politics is dirtying the US consensus on Teheran

The Iran debate hasn't united the US as it has Israel.

September 22, 2008 00:07
4 minute read.
Analyze This: How partisan politics is dirtying the US consensus on Teheran

Ahmadinejad cuckoo 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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Whatever else he has done, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has at least succeeded in uniting a nation. Not his own - where he remains a polarizing figure between radical Islamists and more moderate elements - but in Israel, where the threat posed by the combination of his fiery threats to have this country wiped off the map, coupled with his determination to obtain the nuclear means to do so, has become the rare issue uniting both Right and Left. Yet while the Iranian nuclear threat may have created an exceptional spirit of political consensus in Israel, that certainly hasn't been the case in the US. The debate over American policy toward Teheran has become just another polarizing issue in the US presidential campaign. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that whatever real basis exists for consensus between Republicans and Democrats on the subject has for now been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, as both sides largely use it as another piece of ammunition in the dirty campaign war. This was amply demonstrated in the kerfuffle leading up to Monday's rally in New York City protesting Ahmadinejad's participation in the opening of the United Nations General Assembly that resulted in the absence of any elected official from either party taking part as a speaker. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations had invited New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton to address the crowd. It later extended the same request to Alaska Governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The result was protests from Democrats over Palin's participation on grounds that her presence would turn the event into a campaign event. This led to the rescinding of the invite to the GOP candidate, and then to Clinton herself. In retrospect, the rally organizers deserve some blame for not realizing the problematic nature of pairing Clinton and Palin on the same stage at this time, especially for the former. As soon as it was announced as a possibility, the US media were crowing over the prospect that the event could turn out to be a real-life repeat of last week's widely-seen sketch on the comedy show Saturday Night Live, which feature wicked impersonations of Clinton and Palin making an uncomfortable joint appearance. "Oh, now this could be fun," wrote Andrew Malcolm in the Los Angeles Times, "to see the body language between Sen. Hillary Clinton, who some Democrats think should have been the party's vice presidential nominee, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who many Republicans think should be the country's first female vice president." It's likely in a less politically toxic time that some kind of compromise could have been worked out to allow Democratic and Republican participation in the Iran protest. Over the past few years, policy on the Iranian nuclear threat has generally been one of the few consensus issues in Washington. For example, support for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Teheran has mostly enjoyed strong bipartisan support both between the White House and Congress, and within the latter itself. Even in the current presidential contest between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, the policy gap between them on this matter, at least rhetorically, is not nearly so great as on other key issues. The difference lies mainly in Obama's declared willingness to first attempt direct, unconditional negotiations with the Iranian leadership as a means to deter its nuclear program. But if that should fail, the Democratic candidate has repeatedly said, just like his GOP counterpart, "all options are on the table." Yet in the current highly partisan climate, it is the areas of differences rather than agreement that are highlighted, with sometimes even the latter impacted by the feelings of suspicion and ill-will between the parties. This became clear in the controversial rejection last year by Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden of an amendment proposed by the White House to officially designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group. Biden said afterwards he voted against the measure (Obama abstained) not on its substance, but "because I don't trust this administration" - i.e., not to subsequently use it as justification to attack Iran without congressional authorization. This episode - which Republicans are now using to paint Obama and Biden as soft on Teheran - amply indicates the degree to which the bitter divisions over the administration's handling of the Iraq war have bled into the discussions on Iran, rendering any real bipartisanship in this area a tough order until after the election is settled. It is instructive, though, to compare this matter with how Washington is dealing with the current Wall Street meltdown. In addressing the collapse of the financial markets, we see how Democrats and Republicans can still work together in a constructive fashion when they perceive a genuine pressing crisis is at hand. That this isn't the case with the Iran issue is a sign that the majority of Americans, and their political representatives, still don't perceive Teheran's nuclear ambitions as being anywhere near as much as a threat to the well-being of the US as is the economic crisis. And that, more than just the absence of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin from the speakers' platform, should be taken by those at Monday's NYC rally as a troubling sign of the work that still needs to be done by those trying to waken Americans to the nature of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.

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