Iran emerging as a factor in US presidential campaign
Washington - Iran is adding a spark to yet another US presidential race. While the effect is unlikely to be as dramatic as the Tehran hostage crisis was in the 1980 election, Democrats and Republicans in the current battle for the White House are facing accusations of selling out American values to a regime still seen as an adversary.
In a campaign run mostly on such domestic issues as immigration, race and the economy, Iran has surfaced as one of the few foreign policy battlegrounds. Charges of being weak on Iran are potentially explosive in US politics because Tehran has long been seen as a state sponsor of terrorism and a threat to America’s ally Israel.
Both major parties made clear in their election platforms that they are determined to take tough action against Iran. The Democrats stand by last year’s deal over Iran’s nuclear programme but promise military action if Iran breaks the agreement. The Republicans’ campaign rejects the nuclear agreement but their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is vague about whether he would cancel it if elected president.
The Democrats have been on the hot seat since it was revealed that US President Barack Obama’s administration sent $400 million in cash by plane to Tehran on January 17th, the same day that Washington secured the release of three Americans held by Iran. Obama strongly denied that the money constituted a ransom payment but Trump has sought to make the most of what he says is a dangerous precedent set by Obama and his former secretary of State, Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“He denied it was for the hostages but it was. He said we don’t pay ransom but he did. He lied about the hostages — openly and blatantly,” Trump said at a campaign rally August 18th.
“Now the administration has put every American travelling overseas, including our military personnel, at greater risk of being kidnapped. Hillary Clinton owns President Obama’s Iran policy. One more reason she can never be allowed to be president.”
Trump’s attack followed remarks by US State Department spokesman John Kirby, who said the United States had used the “leverage” offered by the transfer of the $400 million in securing the Americans’ release. The Obama administration said the money belonged to Iran anyway and was the first instalment of $1.7 billion that is to be returned to Tehran as reimbursement for funds paid by Iran in the 1970s for weapons that were never delivered.
Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said “the use of financial leverage to persuade Tehran to curtail its most dangerous policies” was a time-tested instrument in America’s dealing with Iran.
“Every US president, both Republican and Democrat, has adhered to the formula adopted in the days after the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran: to hold open the door to negotiations while increasing the costs to Tehran for its malfeasance,” Maloney wrote in an analysis.
American-Iranian relations have improved since the conclusion of the nuclear deal but Trump and other Republicans remain critical of the agreement and claim it is a failure. On the campaign trail Trump said Iran had gotten its hands on $150 billion because of the nuclear deal.
Republicans also criticised the Obama administration after gunboats of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps harassed US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf in August. US Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, told The Hill newspaper that “Iran’s unchecked aggression and malign activities throughout the Middle East continue to increase, despite assertions from the administration that the nuclear agreement between our countries would make Tehran a more cooperative global partner”.
The Iran issue works both ways: Trump’s party stands accused of trying to reach a backroom deal with Tehran to prevent the Democrats scoring a diplomatic victory. An Iranian official said earlier this year that US Republicans had asked Tehran to delay the release of the three American hostages until after the November elections.
“We were carrying out negotiations with the Obama administration, when representatives of the Republican Party got in touch with us,” Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the France24 news channel. “They asked us to do what we could to hinder the talks and to push them back until after the US presidential elections — in other words, after President Obama’s departure, ” he said.
Shamkhani’s claim, for which he offered no evidence, recalls a similar alleged conspiracy almost 40 years ago. The failure by then-president Jimmy Carter to free 52 Americans held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran played a major role in the 1980 election, which Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan. The hostages were released as Reagan took office, leading to speculation that Republicans had provided the Iranians with money and weapons in return for delaying their release.