The Iran Wedge

Now is the season of Republican lethargy and discontent. A wave of retirements is dimming GOP congressional prospects, while the Republican presidential candidates have generated so little excitement that they are running behind the Democrats in fundraising and in the opinion polls. But there is one cheerful possibility on the horizon, and that is war with Iran.

Until recently, I had thought that an attack on Iran, besides being strategically reckless for America, would be politically suicidal for the Republican Party. I am still convinced an attack would be reckless for the country, but I am beginning to see how it could work for the GOP.

That the Bush administration might launch an airstrike to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities has for some time been the subject of intense speculation. During recent months, however, the administration has increasingly emphasized the claim that Iran is arming insurgents in Iraq. In the Oct. 8 issue of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports that instead of targeting nuclear sites, a strike would now focus on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is allegedly responsible for U.S. casualties in Iraq. The attack would then be justified not as counterproliferation, but as counterterrorism. According to Hersh's sources, the president has indicated that he supports such an attack but has yet to issue the order to carry it out.

Hersh's only reference to domestic political fallout assumes that an attack would hurt the GOP. He quotes an unnamed former intelligence official as saying that "Cheney et al." are so determined "to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible" that they are ignoring Republican electoral concerns: "Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the president."

May I say a word in the vice president's defense? I believe that he does care a rat's ass. The whole idea of the attack makes more sense as an attempt to revive the political dynamics that worked so well for the Republicans in 2002 and 2004, when they turned public anxiety about Islamist terrorism to their advantage, while dividing the Democrats and throwing them on the defensive and off their own issues. An attack on Iran could do the same.

We can already see how the politics might play out. On Sept. 26, the Senate adopted a resolution presented by Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization. The vote was 76-22, with Democrats splitting almost exactly down the middle (Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid were among the supporters). The resolution passed only because its sponsors took out two paragraphs approving a military response, but Democrats split over the suspicion that the resolution might be used to justify one.

The precipitating occasion for an initial strike against Iran might be a murky episode along the lines of the Tonkin Gulf incident in the Vietnam War. A U.S. attack on Revolutionary Guard facilities would almost certainly not go unanswered. Iran has the capacity to strike back against American targets not only in Iraq, but throughout the world. As Zbigniew Brzezinski told Hersh, "The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand."

In the wake of an Iranian response -- imagine a terrorist attack in an American city -- there would be a public clamor for U.S. retaliation. That clamor might then allow an all-out attack against Iran's nuclear sites, which is what I assume Bush and Cheney are really after.

Such a sequence of events, while not without political risks to the Republicans, could wreak havoc on the Democrats. If Iran's response took substantial American casualties, it would generate overwhelming pressure to support U.S. retaliation. The crisis might also accentuate public anxieties about a woman as president at a point when Sen. Clinton may have locked up the nomination. And if the GOP's cards really fall into place, a third-party anti-war presidential campaign might allow the Republican candidate to win in 2008 with only a plurality of the vote. Unless the Democratic nominee handles the crisis brilliantly, it could radically change prospects for the election.

To be sure, an American attack could boomerang. It might strengthen the Iranian regime by generating a nationalist reaction within the country, cast the regime in a heroic light throughout the Islamic world, unleash a wave of terrorism against the United States, aggravate our difficulties in Iraq, and entangle us in a regional war indefinitely. Some analysts think these risks to both the republic and the Republican Party are so great that George Bush will ultimately decline to order an attack. But the Republicans are playing a very weak hand, and this may be their best gamble to retain power.

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