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Would a President Romney Mean War With Iran?

The Republican candidate is surrounded by hawkish advisers who want to stick it to Iran.

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 1:24 PM EST

The hyperbole has been impressive. Take Rick Santorum: "Once they have a nuclear weapon, let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri." Or Newt Gingrich: "Remember what it felt like on 9/11 when 3,100 Americans were killed. Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros. And it's 300,000 dead. Maybe a half million wounded. This is a real danger. This is not science fiction."

And then there's Mitt Romney: "Right now, the greatest danger that America faces and the world faces is a nuclear Iran."

The Regime-Change Brigade

Even if they're not exactly excusable, media laziness and political posturing are predictable. But there is a third reason Americans are primed for war: there exists in Washington what might be called the Bomb Iran Lobby—a number of hawkish political types and groups actively working to make believers of us all when it comes to an Iranian weapons program and so pave the way for regime change. It should be noted that while some current and former Democrats have said that bombing Iran is a good idea, the groups in the lobby all fall on the Republican side of the aisle.

Numerous conservative and neoconservative think tanks pump out reports, op-eds, and journal articles suggesting or simply stating that "Iran has a nuclear weapons program" that must be stopped—and that it'll probably take force to do the job. Just check out the flow of words from mainstream Republican think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and AEI. ("It has long been clear that, absent regime change in Tehran, peaceful means will never persuade or prevent Iran from reaching its nuclear objective, to which it is perilously close.") Or take the Claremont Institute ("A mortal threat when Iran is not yet in possession of a nuclear arsenal? Yes…") or neoconservatives who sit in perches in nonpartisan institutes like Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations ("Air Strikes Against Iran Are Justifiable").

You can see this at even more hawkish shops like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, with its "campaign to ensure that Iran's vow to destroy Israel and create ‘a world without America' remains neither ‘obtainable' nor ‘achievable.'" (According to one of its distinguished advisors, a Fox News host, Iran has "nuclear weapons programs"—plural). At the old Cold War group the Committee on the Present Danger, Iran is "marching toward nuclearization." Retired general and Christian crusader Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council even told Glenn Beck, "I believe that Iran has a nuclear warhead now."

There are also two organizations, much attended to on the right, whose sole goal is regime change. There's the Emergency Committee for Israel, a militantly pro-Israel group founded by Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer that links the Christian right with the neocons and the Israel lobby. It insists that "Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapon," and it's pushing hard for bombing and regime change.

No less important is the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident cult group that was recently, amid much controversy, removed from the official US list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK brought Israeli intelligence about Iran's then-active nuclear weapons program into the public eye at a Washington press conference in 2002. Since then, it has peppered the public with tales of Iranian nuclear chicanery, and it ran a major lobbying campaign, paying dozens of former US anti-terrorism officials— several of whom are now in the defense industry—to sing its praises.

It wants regime change because it hopes that the US will install its "president-elect" and "parliament-in-exile" in power in Tehran. (Think of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, who played a similar role with the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They even have some of the same boosters.)

And then there are the groups who want war with Iran for religious reasons. Take Christians United For Israel (CUFI), an End-Times politico-religious organization run by John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio. As scholar Nicholas Guyatt shows in his book Have a Nice Doomsday, Hagee's organization promotes the belief, common among fundamentalist Christians, that a war between Israel and Iran will trigger the Rapture.

Hagee's own book, Countdown Jerusalem, suggests that Iran already has nuclear weapons and the ability to use them, and he aggressively advocates an attack on that country. To many mainstream Americans, Hagee, his followers, and others with similar religious views may seem a bit nutty, but he is not to be discounted: his book was a bestseller.

The Supporting Cast

Republican-friendly media have joined the game, running blustery TV segments on the subject and cooking the books to assure survey majorities that favor military action. Take this question from a March poll commissioned by Fox News: "Do you think Iran can be stopped from continuing to work on a nuclear weapons program through diplomacy and sanctions alone, or will it take military force to stop Iran from working on nuclear weapons?" Absent priming like this, a majority of Americans actually prefer diplomacy, 81% supporting direct talks between Washington and Tehran.

And don't forget the military-industrial complex, for which the fear of a nuclear-armed Iran means opportunity. They use it to justify that perennial cash cow and Republican favorite: missile defense (which the Romney campaign dutifully promotes on its "Iran: An American Century" webpage). It gives the Pentagon a chance to ask for new bunker busting bombs and to justify the two new classes of pricey littoral combat ships.

If the US were to bomb Iranian facilities—and inevitably get drawn into a more prolonged conflict—the cash spigot is likely to open full flood. And don't forget the potential LOGCAP, construction, and private security contracts that might flow over the years (even if there isn't an occupation) to the KBRs, SAICs, DynCorps, Halliburtons, Bechtels, Wackenhuts, Triple Canopies, and Blackwater/Academis of the world. (Too bad there aren't meaningful transparency laws that would let us know how much these companies and their employees have contributed, directly or indirectly, to Romney's campaign or to the think tanks that pay and promote the convenient views of professional ideologues.)

The Problem With Romney

All of this means that the public has been primed for war with Iran. With constant media attention, the Republican candidates have driven home the notion that Iran has or will soon have nuclear weapons, that Iranian nukes present an immediate and existential threat to Israel and the US, and that diplomacy is for sissies. If Obama wins, he will have to work even harder to prevent war. If Romney wins, war will be all the easier. And for his team, that's a good thing.

The problem with Romney, you see, is that he hangs out with the wrong crowd—the regime-change brigade, many of whom steered the ship of state toward Iraq for George W. Bush. And keep in mind that he, like Romney (and Obama), was an empty vessel on foreign affairs when he entered the Oval Office. Even if Iran has been nothing more than a political tool for Romney, regime change is a deep-seated goal for the people around him. They actually want to bomb Iran. They've said so themselves.

Take Robert Kagan. His main perch is at the non-partisan Brookings Institution, but he has also been a leader of the neocon Project for a New American Century and its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI). "Regime change in Tehran," he has written, "is the best nonproliferation policy."

Kagan's fellow directors at the FPI are also on Romney's team: Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman (former staffer to Cheney and Douglas Feith's successor at the Pentagon), and former Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor, who has become Romney's most trusted foreign policy advisor and a rumored contender for national security advisor. The FPI's position? "It is time to take military action against the Iranian government elements that support terrorism and its nuclear program. More diplomacy is not an adequate response."

Or how about John Bolton, Bush's U.N. ambassador and a frequent speaker on behalf of the MEK, who has said, "The better way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to attack its nuclear weapons program directly and break their control over the nuclear fuel cycle," and that "we should be prepared to take down the regime in Tehran."

And the list goes on.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that a President Romney would ignore his neocon team's advice, just as George W. Bush famously ignored the moderate Republican advice of his father's team. Still, it's hard to imagine him giving the cold shoulder to the sages of the previous administration: Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Indeed, Romney is said to turn to the " Cheney-ites" when he seeks counsel, while giving the more moderate Republican internationalists the cold shoulder. And Cheney wanted to bomb Iran.

In a Romney administration, expect this gang to lobby him hard to finish the job and take out Iran's nuclear facilities, or at least to give Israel the green light to do so. Expect them to close their eyes to what we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan when it comes to "blood and treasure." Expect them to say that bombing alone will do the trick "surgically." Expect them to claim that the military high command is "soft," "bureaucratic," and "risk-averse" when it hesitates to get involved in what will inevitably become a regional nightmare. Expect the message to be: this time we'll get it right.

Kenneling the Dogs of War

No one likes the idea of Iran getting nukes, but should the regime decide to pursue them, they don't present an existential threat to anyone. Tehran's leaders know that a mushroom cloud in Tel Aviv, no less Washington, would turn their country into a parking lot.

Should the mullahs ever pursue nuclear weapons again, it would be for deterrence, for the ability to stand up to the United States and say, "Piss off." While that might present a challenge for American foreign policy interests—especially those related to oil—it has nothing to do with the physical safety of Israel or the United States.

War with Iran is an incredibly bad idea, yet it's a real threat. President Obama has come close to teeing it up. Even talk of a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is delusional, because, as just about every analyst points out, we wouldn't know if it had worked (which it probably wouldn't) and it would be an act of war that Iran wouldn't absorb with a smile. In its wake, a lot of people would be likely to die.

But Romney's guys don't think it's a bad idea. They think it's a good one, and they are ready to take a swing.

Jeremiah Goulka, a TomDispatch regular, writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party. He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Hurricane Katrina recovery worker, and an attorney at the US Department of Justice. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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