For many years now the issue of Iran’s nuclear program has been at or near the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. For the most part the issue has been debated in strategic terms: Will deterrence and extended deterrence work on an Iranian nuclear weapons capability or not? What are the proliferation implications of an Iranian breakout? Would a nuclear weapons capability embolden or restrain Iranian policy? Politics tends to play a secondary role in serious analyses of such questions. It is not clear, however, that politics is necessarily a secondary factor, and the U.S. presidential election season is revealing how important it can be. In the end, political tails in the United States, Israel, Iran and elsewhere may wag strategic dogs. If they do, it would hardly be the first time history has recorded such a phenomenon.
The Iranian nuclear issue isn’t at the center of debate in the campaign thus far, but it may rise in importance as election day approaches if Republicans, deprived of major foreign policy issues, use Iran’s nuclear program and the Obama Administration’s handling of it against the President. If they successfully paint him as ineffective or failing on Iran, they could neutralize his popular national security accomplishments, like the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and his pledge to bring American troops home from Afghanistan.
It is risky for Republicans to appear to be pushing for another war, with an American public clearly wary of new military entanglements in the Middle East, but much of the debate could be driven less by campaign strategy as such and more by what Israel does or says. Given the special relationship between America and Israel, the Iran issue in American policy cannot be separated from the way Israel’s calculus flows into American politics. In an election year, that flow is bound to be stronger than in normal times, and it could trump the public’s wariness of new U.S. military engagement in the region. Tied in turn to the Israeli calculus are Arab attitudes toward Iran that are potentially consequential both in a rapidly changing Arab world political environment and in the U.S. assessment of the issue.
As is obvious, Iran’s nuclear program remains a top policy priority for Israel, as Israel official and para-official rhetoric illustrates. But interpretations of the real purposes of recent Israeli rhetoric differ. Some believe that Israeli words should be taken at face value, meaning that the prospect of an Israeli military attack in the near future is quite high despite all the known risks involved. Others believe that the purpose of Israeli rhetoric is to raise risks in Iranian...