Making Iran a Campaign Issue May Not Prove Easy for the GOP

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In Washington, D.C., Iran seems to be on everyone’s minds.

Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie this week made the case in an op-ed in Foreign Policy that in order to win the White House, the eventual GOP nominee should focus on international affairs rather than the domestic economy. “The Republican candidate should focus on the dangers of rogue states, particularly Iran,” they wrote. “The upcoming three-year anniversary of the stolen June 2009 Iranian presidential election is a particularly opportune moment for the Republican nominee to meet with Iranian exiles and offer a major speech drawing attention to Obama’s weakness and naivete in dealing with this belligerent power.”

(MOREFour Ways the U.S. Could End Up at War with Iran Before the Election)

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Gerry Seib, made the case that far more than Republican infighting and Super Tuesday’s March 6 primaries, “Iran and its nuclear intentions are rapidly emerging as the ultimate wild card in this year’s presidential race.”

The annual pro-Israel AIPAC policy conference taking place in the capital this weekend will coincide with a visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the Obama Administration hopes to persuade to restrain any military action against Iran while economic sanctions take effect. Both events are sure to amplify saber-rattling on the part of White House critics.

But despite the hype, when it comes to Iran, there’s not much daylight between the President and his GOP rivals or, for that matter, most Republicans in Congress. Though Rove and Gillespie mocked Obama’s early attempts at outreach, it was Iran’s rejection of the President’s open hand that helped persuade European leaders, among others, to go along with crippling sanctions — sanctions that are tougher than anything any Republican President has managed to enforce in more than three decades of severed relations with Tehran.

(MORE: Newt Gingrich Contemplates War With Iran)

“Obama pushed the Bush agenda better than Bush did,” says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Israel in 2008 wanted to bomb Iran. Bush said no. Bush didn’t want to squeeze Iran too much. Now Israel has their own capability to bomb Iran and Iraq controls its own airspace.”

With a Congress marked by its inability to do virtually anything on a bipartisan basis, Iranian sanctions are one of the few areas of relative unanimity under Obama.  Last month the Senate passed a tough package of banking sanctions, some of which take effect on Wednesday, by a vote of 99-0. The White House worked closely with both chambers on the timing of that bill, often using it as a diplomatic cudgel in negotiations with allies and back-channel talks with Iran.

Earlier this month, the Senate Banking Committee unanimously passed a second bill of even tougher sanctions, tightening the restrictions of the first bill and adding a measure to expel Iran from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, an organization crucial to managing transactions between banks. Some experts describe a SWIFT expulsion as “the silver bullet” to hobble Iran’s economy, and potentially its nuclear ambitions. The timing of that bill’s full passage remains uncertain as Washington watches Iran’s March 2 parliamentary elections and weighs Tehran’s call for fresh talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council members plus Germany – a gesture that many attribute to the toll sanctions have already taken on Iran.

(MOREIran Calls New US Sanctions ‘Psychological War’)

So, it is hard to imagine how Republican presidential candidates might exploit Iran as a political issue in November, especially when, as Seib notes, they don’t seem particularly steeped in the issue. From Seib’s column:

Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates—with the notable exception of Rep. Ron Paul—have made getting tougher with Iran their principal point of departure from Obama foreign policy.

The Republican critique of the president on this issue is almost certainly off base in one regard. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the last debate declared that “this president should have placed crippling sanctions against Iran. He did not.” Actually, the U.S. has succeeded well beyond most expectations in ratcheting up international economic sanctions, including a European Union embargo against Iranian oil, which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Most analysts agree the sanctions are inflicting pain.

With sanctions already in place, there is no other alternative for the U.S. short of greenlighting Israel to bomb Iran, or bombing it ourselves. And pushing for war is politically questionable given a deep budget deficit and a war-weary public. Nevertheless, some Republicans see an opening. Iran “won’t be able to sustain this level of sanctions,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That said, it’s going to take many months for this strategy to bear fruit. At that same time, it’s an uncomfortable position for Obama as it’s easy for Republicans to hit him on the head and say he hasn’t stopped Iran.”