Hamid Foroutan  /  AP file
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric has caused jitters
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 1/22/2006 3:40:22 PM ET 2006-01-22T20:40:22

WASHINGTON — Is it a 1980 scenario all over again?

A standoff with Iran, oil prices soaring, economic turmoil, a U.S. military action against Iran, the president of the United States is checkmated by the mullahs, the majority party suffers catastrophic losses in the November elections.

It was an eerie scene at the Capitol Thursday night as a group of American diplomats who had been held hostage by Iran in 1980 gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of their release and to meet with Sen. George Allen, R- Va., and other members of Congress to thank them for supporting compensation for the hostages.

But the 2006 Iran situation is different from the 1980’s. This time it's not just about oil, but about concerns in the West that Iran is planning to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful purposes, shows signs of reaching an ignition point in the months leading up to this year’s House and Senate elections in November.

A pre-emptive U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or an Iranian test of a nuclear weapon would dramatically change the tenor of the 2006 campaign.

The Iranian regime has removed U.N. seals on its uranium enrichment equipment.

Asked by CNBC host Larry Kudlow Thursday about military action to pre-empt Iran, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "No President should ever take a military option off the table. Let's leave it there.” But he stressed that the Bush administration is trying to solve the problem through diplomatic means.

Tehran’s threats to U.S. ally Israel have increased the sense of anxiety.

Iranian president Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared last October that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Bible of intelligence and defense industry matters, reported last month that Iran had acquired ballistic missiles from North Korea with a range of at least 2,500 kilometers, or about 1,550 miles, which means they could easily reach Israel.

Its sister publication Jane’s Intelligence Digest said as the New Year began, “We predict that the likelihood of pre-emptive military action by either the U.S. or Israel — or both — will be far higher in 2006.”

Last week President Bush called the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon “unacceptable” and some Democrats in the Senate sound as alarmed as Bush is about the potential for Iran to deploy nuclear weapons.

Missile threat to Israel
Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla, who serves on both the Armed Service Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If Iran goes nuclear, they have a rocket that has the range from Iran to Israel. If you put a nuke on the top of that rocket, you’ve got an entirely destabilized situation.”

Alluding to potential military strikes, Nelson added, “I would put all options on the table, but the first option, of course, would be an aggressive diplomatic attempt to solve the problem, reaching out to Europe and China and Russia in a way that we’ve not reached out in the past.”

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Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich., the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee sounded a similar note Wednesday, saying that Bush “has got to get allies. He’s got to reach out and do everything he can to bring in people who will join us for whatever action at the United Nations…. He’s got to become much more of a multilateralist person and he’s got to mean it.”

Levin said Bush’s management of the Iraq war has hurt his ability to form consensus on Iran.

“He’s been unilateralist consistently. It’s been kind of cocky rhetoric that he’s used — ‘you’re either with us or against us’ — and it has turned off a lot of people whose support we need,” the Michigan Democrat said.

For potential 2008 presidential contenders the Iran issue presents an opportunity to demonstrate their foreign policy expertise and to hint at how they might cope with the Tehran regime.

“What matters at the end of all this is that these maniacal theocrats in Iran can not possess nuclear weapons,” said Allen, who recently returned from a tour of China, India and Pakistan, all three of which have nuclear arsenals.

The Virginia Republican said one of the encouraging signs at the moment was that “with the Europeans there’s complete symmetry of purpose” in trying to block Iran from going nuclear.

China's key role
Allen said Russia would be crucial to opposing Iran and “the other key country in all this as it goes forward — on the path towards sanctions and an embargo — is China. When I was in China, I brought up to the foreign minister the importance of their leadership with the Iranians.”

China also happens to be — along with Japan, Italy and South Korea — one of Iran’s top customers for crude oil. And China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities, with $250 billion in Treasuries, or about six percent of marketable Treasury securities.

Another potential 2008 presidential contender, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., called Thursday for aggressive economic sanctions against Iran.

As for this year’s Congressional elections, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, “Anything that heightens the importance of foreign affairs in the current climate helps Republicans.”

Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon could lead to fissionable material falling into terrorists’ hands.  “And that helps the party that is trusted more on national security. The fundamental premise is that Republicans are trusted more in the war on terror,” and polling indicates that has not substantially changed, Ayres said. 

But Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, a veteran of the 2004 Dick Gephardt and John Kerry campaigns, disputed this.

Republicans' lack of credibility?
“Getting voters to focus on Iran versus Iraq versus North Korea — it’s very hard for either party to explain the issue, the differentiation between the parties, and what I, the voter, am supposed to do about it. If I’m a Republican candidate, what am I going to argue about Iran? That I need George Bush to go get WMD in Iran, given how well they did at that in Iraq? The Republicans clearly have a credibility problem in making the case that they can do something in terms of foreign policy in a Middle Eastern country whose name begins with ‘I.’”

Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rhetoric may affect an important constituency this fall. Those Jewish voters for whom Israel’s survival is the top priority are watching the Iran crisis carefully.

In the 2004 election, Bush won an estimated 25 percent of self-identified Jewish voters, according to exit poll interviews, the best performance among Jewish voters by a Republican presidential candidate since his father's 35 percent in 1988. Jewish voters are a significant part of the electorate in New Jersey, Ohio and Florida, all of which have competitive Senate races this November.

But Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, an expert on Jewish voting history, said, "My own guess is that unhappiness with the conduct of the Iraq war and the growing scandals
within the Republican Party will have a much greater impact on Jewish (and other) voters than Iran."

If many voters make their decision based on economic issues rather than geostrategic ones, then a U.S. confrontation with Iran would be dangerous for the majority party.

Iran is the world’s fourth largest exporter of crude oil.

An attack on its nuclear facilities could lead to a cut off of oil exports and could spur Tehran to attack shipping in the Strait of Hormuz which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman.

"The passageway is by far the single most important choke point in the world oil transportation system,” say oil industry analysts Dagobert Brito and Amy Myers Jaffe. One-fifth of the world’s total daily oil demand is carried by tankers through the strait.

“We are in a vulnerable situation. When you have the finance minister of Iran threatening to unleash an oil crisis, you have to take notice,” oil analyst Daniel Yergin said on Kudlow’s program Thursday.

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