George W. Bush and the Iranians are locked in a diplomatic game of "Who's crazier?" With six months left in office, no political capital at home or abroad, and a uniformed military ready to rebel at the first talk of a new war, the Bush Administration is left with simply the threat of military strikes, kept eternally "on the table" in hopes of bluffing Tehran into a compromise on its nuclear program.
Tehran's response has been predictable enough: After Iran tested nine medium-range missiles on Wednesday, the country's state news agency quoted a representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that if the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran, "Tel Aviv and the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf would be the first targets to burst into flames receiving Iran's crushing response." Tehran's message was clear: If Bush wants to play Crazy Cowboy, we're happy to play Mad Mullahs right back at him.
The crazy talk, in fact, is mostly theater. U.S. and Iranian flashpoints in Iraq and the Persian Gulf have been quiet recently, as both sides have been careful to avoid a sustained clash that could escalate into outright conflict. And Iran showed no new military capabilities with the tests. At the same time, diplomacy is deadlocked as Iran takes advantage of soaring oil prices to trump U.N sanctions, while the U.S. sticks to its insistence that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program before Washington will hold negotiations. European efforts to end the impasse have so far served largely as a convenient stalling mechanism for the Iranians.
So, what does it matter that Iran test-fired nine missiles Wednesday? "It's mostly relevant because of how it plays out in the campaign," says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. After a week of bad news, campaign restructuring and silly television spots, the missile tests are a boon for John McCain. Wednesday his campaign made hay with them, saying they showed Barack Obama's inexperience and the danger of his willingness to negotiate with Tehran. For his part, Obama tried to spin the tests to his advantage, saying they showed the Administration's policies were failing and needed to be changed.
Away from the din of campaign sound bites, there is not much difference on the Iran issue between McCain and Obama. McCain's camp tried to argue on Wednesday that Obama is soft on missile defense, but, in fact, he supports it. Obama wants voters to believe McCain is as much of a cowboy diplomat as Bush has been, but McCain's advisers include people like Richard Armitage, erstwhile deputy Secretary of State to Colin Powell, who has advocated for negotiations with Iran in the past.
When asked whether McCain supports Bush's pre-condition for talks with Iran that it suspend uranium enrichment the candidate's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, fudged. "McCain does not support unilateral concessions to Iran that would undermine multilateral diplomacy," Scheunemann said. McCain would drop the condition and talk to Iran, Scheunemann seems to be saying, as long as the allies agree. The allies, of course, are dying to be asked, so if McCain wins in November, look for talks with Iran early in his presidency. Likewise Obama, who says outright he'll drop the enrichment condition. In fact, once past the posturing, there seems little substantive difference between the two on talks.
On balance, McCain has the advantage in this news cycle. Obama's inexperience on foreign affairs and previous slips on Iran are among the few issues breaking the Republican Senator's way in voters' eyes these days. But no matter which campaign reaps the most political benefit from the Iranian tests, come January the next President will find that, talks or no talks, he has the same limited diplomatic, political and military options that have forced Bush to bluff about the cards he's holding.