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 advisers 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 programme, 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 manoeuvers, 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 rumoured 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.
Live Box 201210894257568382
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 programme, 71 percent in 2010 and 84 percent 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 programme, but closed it down in 2003. US, European and Israeli officials consistently say that Iran does not have an ongoing programme 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 programme. 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 programme, 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" programme. Do we hear about that? No. Instead, all we hear about is "Iran's nuclear programme". 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 proselytising 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 spectre of such a weapons programme to bash one another in the primaries, each posturing as the biggest, baddest sheriff on the block - and the process never ended.
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."
| Empire - Targeting Iran - Video: Iran war games
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 programme 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 programme" 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 Defence 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 advisers, a Fox News host, Iran has "nuclear weapons programmes" - plural).
At the old Cold War group the Committee on the Present Danger, Iran is "marching toward nuclearisation". 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 organisations, 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 organisations.
The MEK brought Israeli intelligence about Iran's then-active nuclear weapons programme 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 defence 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 organisation run by John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone mega-church in San Antonio.
As scholar Nicholas Guyatt shows in his book Have a Nice Doomsday, Hagee's organisation promotes the belief, common among fundamentalist Christians, that a war between Israel and Iran will trigger the Rapture.
| Inside Story Americas - Is Israel fuelling
fear not facts over Iran?
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 favour 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 programme 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 percent 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 favourite: Missile defence (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 organisation, 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 adviser and a rumouredcontender for national security adviser.
"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."
The FPI's position? "It is time to take military action against the Iranian government elements that support terrorism and its nuclear programme. More diplomacy is not an adequate response."
Or how about John Bolton, Bush's UN 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 programme 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 Defence Donald Rumsfeld and former Deputy Secretary of Defence 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.
A version of this article first appeared on TomDispatch.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.