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Opinion: Romney and Obama Need to Cool their Jets on Iran

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the V-sign for victory as he waits for the arrival of Ismail Haniya, Palestinian Hamas premier.

I came away from the third presidential debate more scared than ever of the prospect that the United States will be involved in another war in the Mideast in less than a year.

Despite the lip service President Obama and Mitt Romney paid to diplomacy and sanctions, both made it clear they will take the country to war, if and when Israel decides that Iran’s nuclear program has reached the critical point.

Yes, both candidates also said military action is the last resort. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running out of patience, and he has not been shy about pushing Obama into a corner, with his insistence on “red lines” to define at what point the U.S. would support an assault on Iran.

Obama had previously resisted such displays of machismo, but in the last debate he felt it necessary to inch closer to a red line: “We're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere. And I've been very clear to them, you know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program, and that clock is ticking.”

Not long after that statement, Romney declared: “Let me also note that the greatest threat that the world faces, the greatest national security threat, is a nuclear Iran.”

It's not hard to imagine a US-Israeli strike against Iran spilling over into the broader Mideast. Certainly Iran would retaliate, and many analysts have warned of the likelihood of Hezbollah and/or Hamas launching attacks on Israel in support of Iran’s efforts. With civil war raging in Syria, potentially drawing both Turkey and Lebanon into that conflict, the only question could become how deeply the United States would get involved.

Obama and Romney have both vowed to “stand with Israel,” making it difficult to imagine that the U.S. role could be limited to bombing a few Iranian nuclear sites and flying home unscathed. All of these regional conflicts would be viewed as threatening to Israel, and therefore to us. There is hope, of course, that the proverbial cooler heads in government will prevail, but all of this saber-rattling by the presidential candidates, their Congressional allies, and Netanyahu cannot possibly make that prospect more likely. 

It is extremely disappointing that Obama chose the debate as an opportunity to turn up the heat, rather than damp it down. Instead of vowing that Iran would never get a nuke with him in the White House, he might have cited the opinion of his top general, who has said a premature Israeli strike against Iran might be both dangerous and ineffective. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, believes an Israeli attack might delay Iran’s nuclear program but would probably fail to shut it down. As reported by The Guardian, Dempsey added, “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”

I would have felt more reassured if Obama and Romney had similarly tried to throw cold water on the idea of attacking Iran, rather than guarantee the U.S. would defend Israel. After all, the world knew before the debate that America will staunchly support Israel. Why not provide some leadership in the effort to negotiate with Iran, rather than pile on more threats?

It’s also unfortunate that Obama (not to mention his opponent or scores of Congressmen) continually chooses to advance the misconception that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the authority to order a strike against Israel, nuclear or conventional. Under the Iranian system of government, the commander in chief of the armed forces is not the president but the “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Kahmenei. The ayatollah can also veto any laws passed by the parliament. Ahmadinejad can rant all day about wiping Israel off the map, but he lacks any authority to try do so.

Obama and Romney both know this very well, but many Americans do not, hence all the talk here about Ahmadinejad posing an existential threat to Israel. One hopes war can be avoided at least until next June, when Ahmadinejad will be leaving office, having completed his third and final term. Whatever else Ayatollah Kahmenei may be, he’s apparently not as crazy as Ahmadinejad; he knows Israel has a nuclear arsenal and that it is quite capable of responding in kind to a nuclear strike from Iran.

Certainly a nuclear-armed Iran would make the region more dangerous, to Israel and all of its neighbors, but neither U.S. presidential candidate has made a convincing case for a preventive strike.