Analyze This: Playing primary politics over Iran

Suddenly, Iran has become the biggest issue in the Democratic presidential primary. For Israel and its supporters, who had hoped that any US action against Teheran's nuclear ambitions could be a largely non-partisan issue, this is a troubling development. Last April, Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill titled "The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007," which declared that "the secretary of state should designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization... and the secretary of the Treasury should place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists." Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Obama publicly criticized his primary opponent Hillary Clinton for voting in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman bill on Iran - which designates the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. The Illinois senator justified the seeming contradiction in his stand by arguing that specific language in the latter bill could be interpreted as giving the Bush administration a "blank check" to not only use military force against Iran, but justify its continued waging of war in Iraq in order to check Teheran's influence there. The Clinton campaign was having none of this. They quickly shot out a memo to the press accusing Obama of hypocrisy, saying: "Stagnant in the polls and struggling to revive his once-buoyant campaign, Senator Obama has abandoned the politics of hope and embarked on a journey in search of a campaign issue to use against Senator Clinton... Never mind that he co-sponsored a bill designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group back in April." Yet Clinton was clearly put on the defensive last Tuesday in a televised debate when Obama and the other Democratic presidential candidates attacked her vote for Kyl-Lieberman. To blunt that criticism, she joined 29 other senators last week to send the White House a letter asserting that the Bush administration had no congressional authority to militarily move against Iran over its nuclear program. One name conspicuously missing from that letter was that of Obama, who instead upped the stakes in his clash with Clinton on Iran over the weekend. In media interviews, he declared that not only would he introduce his own measure to limit President George W. Bush's freedom of action on Iran, but that he would personally negotiate with the Iranian leadership without any pre-conditions, after Clinton earlier had called a similar statement of his "naive." What's going on here? Why has Iran now become what seems to be the key issue in the Democratic presidential primary? After all, it's not as if all that much has significantly changed in the actual situation on the ground in the past few months. Iran continues to develop its nuclear program in defiance of the international community; the Bush administration continues to push for international sanctions against Teheran; and so far, despite the concerns being expressed by the Democratic candidates that the White House will unilaterally move against Iranian nuclear facilities, there is no real sign that such an action is seriously being considered. What's more, when one looks closely at Clinton's and Obama's positions on Iran, there is not much significant difference. Despite his expressed willingness to try negotiations with Teheran, Obama is still in favor of maintaining and even strengthening sanctions. And despite his attempts to paint Clinton as more hawkish on the issue, he has in the past made some very strong statements that go beyond his rival's rhetoric, even talking in past years explicitly about using "surgical missile strikes" against Iran's nuclear plants if it should become necessary. It is difficult not to conclude that the real issue between the Democratic candidates is not in fact Iran; if anything, it is Iraq. And beyond that, of course, their desire to become the Democratic standard-bearer in the 2008 presidential race. There is some truth to the Clinton campaign's charge that Obama's campaign is turning stagnant. Despite the fact that the Illinois senator and the other primary candidates have in recent weeks upped their attacks on Clinton, her commanding lead over them has not only held firm, but increased - in some national polls it's now as much as 30 percent over Obama. The one campaign issue that has truly gripped the Democratic base in this contest is Iraq. But this has not become a divisive issue among the primary candidates, for two reasons. The first is that there is almost complete unanimity among the serious contenders in condemning the Bush administration's current surge policy and open-ended commitment to remaining in Iraq. The second is that, short of a veto-proof majority in Congress, there is little the Democrats can actually do right now to limit the commander-in-chief's constitutional right to engage in any military action that doesn't require an outright declaration of war. In agreement on Iraq and having gone as far as they can right now, the Democrats have turned their attention to pre-emptive rhetoric and moves on Iran. And the differences which have emerged between Clinton and Obama on this matter are likely being influenced by their respective positions in the primary race. Clinton, the frontrunner, is already looking ahead to the general election against a Republican opponent who will be taking a strong hawkish position on Iran that favors much stronger sanctions, and will likely include the possibility of a military strike. Recent polls indeed do show that a majority of the American public strongly favors the first, and about half would accept the second, at least if it does not include an Iraq-style regime change and US occupation. If she is to gain the White House, Clinton must not alienate these voters by appearing too "weak" on the threat of terrorism and the Iranian radical Islamic regime. Thus, while staying within the Democratic consensus on the need for an Iraq stand-down, she has made statements on Iran and other security issues that appear relatively tougher than some of her Democratic rivals. In contrast, Obama is not looking right now at the White House, but has his eyes firmly on the the Democratic primary race and the need to chip into Clinton's lead. In state primary races it is the more ideological party base that bothers to go to the polls, and the Democratic base leans left of the mainstream membership. By painting Clinton as more hawkish on Iran, Obama is hoping to motivate that base - especially what is now called the "Moveon" or "Kos" crowd, in honor of the popular left-leaning activist Web sites now seen as having significant influence on the Democrat grassroots. While that may indeed, in the short term, help Obama move his poll numbers up in some of the smaller state primaries, it won't do him or the party much benefit in the general election given current US attitudes toward Iran. It may also have the effect of pulling Clinton into a less assertive position toward Teheran, at least until she has the nomination sewed up. That, of course, is exactly what those pushing for even stronger sanctions on Iran do not want to see. Given the GOP's current political travails over the Bush administration's Iraq policies, the one thing Israel and its supporters would most prefer seeing, is a solid bipartisan US policy toward Teheran, or at least one that united the mainstreams of both parties. It is probably unavoidable that Iran will become a divisive issue in the general election, especially if a tough-talking Rudy Giuliani or John McCain squares off against any of the Democratic contenders, including Hillary. It's a bad sign, though, that among the Democrats, Iran is already looking like a divisive issue. [email protected]