Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
It's the consensus among the pundits: foreign policy doesn't matter in this presidential election. They point to the ways Republican candidate Mitt Romney has more or less parroted President Barack Obama on just about everything other than military spending and tough talk about another " American century."
The consensus is wrong. There is an issue that matters: Iran.
Don't be fooled. It's not just campaign season braggadocio when Romney claims that he would be far tougher on Iran than the president by threatening " a credible military option." He certainly is trying to appear tougher and stronger than Obama—he of the drone wars, the " kill list," and Bin Laden's offing—but it's no hollow threat.
The Republican nominee has surrounded himself with advisors who are committed to military action and regime change against Iran, the same people who brought us the Global War on Terror and the Iraq War. Along with their colleagues in hawkish think tanks, they have spent years priming the public to believe that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, making ludicrous claims about "crazy" mullahs nuking Israel and the United States, pooh-poohing diplomacy—and getting ever shriller each time credible officials and analysts disagree.
Unlike with Iraq in 2002 and 2003, they have it easier today. Then, they and their mentors had to go on a sales roadshow, painting pictures of phantom WMDs to build up support for an invasion. Today, a large majority of Americans already believe that Iran is building nuclear weapons.
President Obama has helped push that snowball up the hill with sanctions to undermine the regime, covert and cyber warfare, and a huge naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Iran has ratcheted up tensions via posturing military maneuvers, while we have held joint US-Israeli exercises and "the largest-ever multinational minesweeping exercise" there. Our navies are facing off in a dangerous dance.
Obama has essentially loaded the gun and cocked it. But he has kept his finger off the trigger, pursuing diplomacy with the so-called P5+1 talks and rumored future direct talks with the Iranians. The problem is: Romney's guys want to shoot.
Unlike Iraq, Iran Would Be an Easy Sell
Remember those innocent days of 2002 and 2003, when the war in Afghanistan was still new and the Bush administration was trying to sell an invasion of Iraq? I do. I was a Republican then, but I never quite bought the pitch. I never felt the urgency, saw the al-Qaeda connection, or worried about phantom WMDs. It just didn't feel right. But Iran today? If I were still a Republican hawk, it would be "game on," and I'd know I was not alone for three reasons.
First, even armchair strategists know that Iran has a lot of oil that is largely closed off to us. It reputedly has the fourth largest reserves on the planet. It also has a long coastline on the Persian Gulf, and it has the ability to shut the Strait of Hormuz, which would pinch off one of the world's major energy arteries.
Then there is the fact that Iran has a special place in American consciousness. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the mullahs who run it have been a cultural enemy ever since revolutionary students toppled our puppet regime there and stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The country is a theocracy run by angry-looking men with long beards and funny outfits. It has funded Hezbollah and Hamas. Its crowds call us the " Great Satan." Its president denies the Holocaust and says stuff about wiping Israel off the map. Talk about a ready-made enemy.
Finally, well, nukes.
The public appears to be primed. A large majority of Americans believe that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, 71% in 2010 and 84% this March. Some surveys even indicate that a majority of Americans would support military action to stop Iran from developing nukes.
That's remarkable considering how much less certain most experts seem. Take, for example, the National Intelligence Council, the senior panel that issues the government's National Intelligence Estimates. It continues to stick with its opinion that Iran once had such a program, but closed it down in 2003. US, European, and Israeli officials consistently say that Iran does not have an ongoing program and hasn't even decided to pursue one, that at most the Iranians are hanging out near the starting line. Iran's supreme leader himself issued a fatwa against building nukes. Why, then, is the American public so certain? How did we get here?
There are three main reasons, only one of which is partially innocent.
What's in a Name?
The first is linguistic and quite simple. Say these words out loud: Iran's civilian nuclear program.
Does that sound familiar? Do those words look normal on the page? Chances are the answer is "no," because that's not how the media, public officials, or political candidates typically refer to Iran's nuclear activities. Iran has a civilian nuclear power program, including a power plant at Beshehr, that was founded with the encouragement and assistance of the Eisenhower administration in 1957 as part of its "Atoms for Peace" program. Do we hear about that? No. Instead, all we hear about is "Iran's nuclear program." Especially in context, the implied meaning of those three words is inescapable: that Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons.
Out of curiosity, I ran some Google searches. The results were striking.
- "Iran's disputed nuclear weapons program": 4 hits
- "Iran's possible nuclear weapons program": about 8,990 hits
- "Iran's civil nuclear program": about 42,200 hits
- "Iran's civilian nuclear program": about 199,000 hits
- "Iran's nuclear weapons program": about 5,520,000 hits
- "Iran's nuclear program": about 49,000,000 hits
Words matter, and this sloppiness is shaping American perceptions, priming the public for war.
Some of this is probably due to laziness. Having to throw in "civilian" or "weapons" or "disputed" or "possible" makes for extra work and the result is a bit of a tongue twister. Even people with good reasons to be precise use the shorter phrase, including President Obama.
But some of it is intentional.
The Proselytizing Republican Presidential Candidates
The second reason so many Americans are convinced that Iran is desperately seeking nukes can be attributed to the field of Republican candidates for the presidency. They used the specter of such a weapons program to bash one another in the primaries, each posturing as the biggest, baddest sheriff on the block—and the process never ended.