Tehran's Lucky Break?

Will a divided Congress lessen the likelihood of confronting Iran?

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) raised eyebrows this past weekend when he told an audience at an international security conference that the United States should consider “neutering” the theocratic regime of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Speaking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Graham told the assembled group that the United States could neuter Tehran by a large air campaign directed not just against its nuclear program but also its military. In Graham’s words, American planes should “…sink [Iran’s] navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard.”

The comments, reported around the world, were spun by the media to sound more provocative than was the case. Graham was not proposing a sneak attack against Iran, but speaking to the fact that if sanctions do not prove effective, and military action were to become necessary, then that action should be directed against the regime in its entirety, not just one part of it. That is simply common sense. It is generally accepted that an attack against Iran would provoke a range of asymmetrical counter-attacks by Iran against the West, with attempts to block oil shipments through the Persian Gulf, attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased support for Israel’s terrorist tormenters considered likely reactions.

Given that, Graham is simply speaking the truth when he says that if military action must come, it must be comprehensive, aimed at the head and heart of the regime, and all its arms, not just one particular program. Graham was similarly correct when he said that a viable military option was an essential component of keeping up America’s diplomatic pressure on Iran, and also of satisfying Israel’s need to know that they have a dependable ally in Washington. As dangerous as an American attack on Iran would be, it would be even more risky to allow Israel to feel cornered and alone.

So Graham’s comments, while noteworthy, are hardly revolutionary, and perhaps owe more to effective spin by the media than any fair assessment of their true meaning. All the same, for the sake of argument, it’s instructive to consider whether or not the most extreme interpretation of Graham’s comments — that America should hit Iran with a broadly targeted surprise attack — would even be possible. In short, no. Despite the Republican gains in the recent midterms, there is unlikely to be any significant change in America’s stance with Iran.

Indeed, the Obama administration’s stance has been outwardly similar to that of the Bush administration, based around diplomacy and sabotage. There is little sign that Washington is leaning towards a more aggressive posture, preferring instead to continue gently pushing the international community for economic sanctions and working behind the scenes to isolate Iran from the world community. That latter goal has enjoyed some modest success of late; on Wednesday, the United States, Canada and Australia blocked an Iranian attempt to secure a seat on the United Nation’s new agency to promote women’s rights (a self-evidently ridiculous idea given Iran’s appalling record on human rights, particularly for women). But economic sanctions have clearly not deterred Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons, nor are they likely to unless seriously revamped.

Unfortunately, none of the Republican gains in the House are likely to lead to increased pressure on Iran. The anti-Obama backlash and Tea Party activism that helped deal the Democrats what even the President conceded was a “shellacking” were driven by concern over domestic issues — jobs, deficits, and reckless spending on a transformative agenda in the midst of an economic downturn. In this environment of tremendous focus on domestic issues, there will be little appetite in Washington to spend time or energy on international affairs when the next battle for the White House will be fought closer to home.

The recent Democratic losses in the House might, if anything, make the President even less likely to take a tough line on Iran. With the House in Republican hands, the President knows that advancing his left-wing agenda domestically is essentially off the table. The best he can hope for at home is that the Democrats’ control of the Senate will cause sufficient deadlock to prevent the Republican House from undoing too much of what he’s already accomplished. Given that, it is likely that President Obama will devote himself to pursuing his transformative agenda not at home, but abroad. And what better way to placate a frustrated liberal base than to present himself as the peaceful President holding the forces of war at bay in his own country while seeking to rehabilitate America’s image abroad?

Indeed, the President recently took time out of his trip to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, to reiterate that America is not at war with Islam, now or ever. You can be sure that the mullahs in Tehran view these words not as a sign of America’s devotion to religious freedom, but of President Obama’s desperate desire to establish a narrative for his presidency. He’s lost his chance to reform America. He’ll have to settle for global peace ambassador, instead.

It is a pity that Senator Graham’s statement in Halifax cannot possibly resonate as loudly in Iran as President Obama’s words in Indonesia. Iran must be confronted, and soon, if it is to be prevented from becoming a nuclear power. Unfortunately, given Congress’s fixation on economic matters and the President’s determination to be a hero in the Muslim world, the worst threat America can realistically hold over Iran’s head are the easily misquoted words of the Senator from the great state of South Carolina.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]and on Twitter @mattgurney.