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Politics Plays Into Iran Nuclear Issue

  • Gary Thomas

 Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with members of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran, March 8, 2012.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with members of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran, March 8, 2012.

Iran’s suspected desire to become a nuclear weapons power is affecting not only diplomatic maneuvering, but also internal political debate in several countries. All three of the main protagonists in the nuclear debate have either just had elections or can be expected to hold ones in the near future.

Israel has been pressing for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for fear they will soon be made impregnable to attack, and would like U.S. help, or at least its approval, for such a move. President Barack Obama, who met recently with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, however, has been counseling patience, urging the Israelis to give tougher economic and political sanctions time to work.

Former Israeli government official Daniel Levy, now co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, said the political dimensions of Netanyahu’s position on the Iran nuclear issue cannot be overlooked.

"I don’t want to be overly cynical and suggest he only has a political consideration, but the guy is a politician. And the one thing that is missing, I’ve found, in much of the analysis here is that it is as if Israel doesn’t have politics. And I just wanted to try to reintroduce politics into the equation. Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking very strong for getting a third term as prime minister. I’ll shock you all - that matters to him," said Levy.

Elections for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, must be held sometime before October 2013, and many analysts believe Prime Minister Netanyahu will call early elections. A recent poll has 42 percent of Israelis backing a preemptive strike on Iran only if it has U.S. backing.

Speaking recently to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee - the main pro-Israel lobby group in Washington - Netanyahu said Israel cannot afford to wait much longer to take strong action on Iran.

Levy said the prime minister is playing to his political base by keeping the focus on Iran and off the vexing Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"For Benjamin Netanyahu to be able to go back to his right-wing coalition, and say, ‘guys, did you see? Iran, Iran, Iran, Iran, Iran, Iran. Palestine ain’t an issue. Who’s the man? Am I a great prime minister or what?’ And that plays with the right-wing coalition," said Levy.

In the U.S., a field of Republican candidates is vying to be the one to face Obama in November’s presidential contest, and each one has sounded tough on Iran, like the current front-runner Mitt Romney.

"The president should have built a credible threat of military action, and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon," said Romney.

Analyst Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the nongovernmental National Security Network, said the Republicans are trying to push the idea that the president has been “soft” on Iran.

"If Barack Obama is a national security president, if his highest marks are on national security, if - as he finds a way to subtly remind us every now and then - he killed Osama bin Laden, then attack him on that. And Iran is clearly the target of choice since you can’t attack him on terrorism, and you can’t attack him on Iraq and Afghanistan because Americans are done with those wars and want the troops to come home," said Hurlburt.

Iran just held parliamentary elections. Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said even in Iran’s theocratic state, political considerations matter.

"Politics are important in Iran, as well. I think there is a common perception that is incorrect that Iran is a monolithic actor with a unified political system going towards a nuclear weapons capability. And that’s just simply not true. Iranian politics deeply shape Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear policy as well," said Nader.

The elections went strongly in favor of the backers of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared poorly, and analysts believe his influence is now greatly diminished. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of a new book on Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, said the supreme leader may open his stable of advisers to some more moderate voices.

"There is a degree of difference between these different political currents in Iran when it comes to what they’re willing to compromise on and the amount of transparency they’re willing to provide the outside world," said Parsi. "And that actually could be quite a positive thing because right now both Iran and the United States need to make some kind of a compromise to avoid falling down into the abyss. They’re already standing on the edge of it."

There may be some signs that at least some steps have been taken back from that abyss. Iran recently signaled its willingness to return to the so-called P5+1 nuclear talks with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. The war rumblings from Israel have abated a bit, although Netanyahu still harbors skepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions against the Iranian government.

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