On November 4, Americans will go to the polls to elect their next president. But even as rival candidates Barack Obama and John McCain spar over who can bring change at home and restore America's image abroad, on the most immediate foreign policy challenge facing the next inhabitant of the Oval Office - Iranian nuclear development - there will be no change.
In their first debate, both candidates said their administrations would negotiate with the Islamic Republic, albeit not at the presidential level. Whether Obama or McCain authorises his secretary of state or some lesser official is irrelevant, however, as it takes two to tango. Too often, US politicians and commentators navel-gaze: they assume decisions in Washington shape world events and that a change in policy will be enough to alter the international milieu. Reality, though, is opposite. Washington more often reacts to international events rather than leads them. Not so Tehran. While American leaders play chequers, their Iranian counterparts play chess, planning strategy several moves in advance.
Divergent US and Iranian attitudes towards diplomacy show this clearly. Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami wowed the West when, at his 1997 inauguration, he called for a dialogue of civilisations. US and European officials took the bait. Between 2000 and 2005, for example, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled, as European leaders pursued a policy of critical engagement. Simultaneously, Tehran reaped billions of dollars from the rise in oil prices. Rather than turn moderate, however, the Iranian government took its hard currency windfall and invested almost 70 per cent of it in military equipment and its covert nuclear program.
This nuclear deception was not a result of Iranian hardliners working behind the backs of their reform-minded counterparts: the ruse was intentional. On June 14 this year, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami's former spokesman, explained: "The solution is to prove to the entire world that we want the (nuclear) power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities." He criticised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocations and suggested Khatami's strategy to lull the West with soft words better achieved Iran's nuclear aims.
"We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities," Ramezanzadeh explained.
Dialogue may sound good in theory, but the diplomacy taught in Western academies and that taught in Iranian seminaries bear no resemblance to each other. While diplomats in the US, Europe, and Australia seek compromise, Iranian diplomats learn taqiyya, religiously-sanctioned lying.
Iranian deception worked, at least until 2002 when, confronted with damning satellite images, Iranian diplomats finally acknowledged that the Islamic Republic had built a covert nuclear enrichment plant. While some Western academics rationalise Iranian behaviour and say the Iranian nuclear program is motivated only by the presence of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, in fact Iran's nuclear program predates either conflict.
Whoever next occupies the Oval Office will face overwhelming evidence of Iranian deceit. Unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war, the new president need not rely on the veracity of CIA reports; the most damning evidence comes from International Atomic Energy Agency inspections which, among other things, have found plutonium residue and uranium metal contamination on Iranian equipment. Neither has any role in energy production but both are crucial to bomb-making. More damning, Iranian scientists have acknowledged work on polonium-210, which is used in nuclear bomb triggers.
Nor will the next president have the luxury of time. With 6000 centrifuges - Iran has already installed 4000 - the Islamic Republic can produce enough highly enriched uranium to supply a bomb in less than a month; that is, within a period between IAEA inspections. Although many intelligence estimates suggest Iran is years away from a nuclear bomb, these assume all weapons design work is domestic. But, as Syria's mysterious plutonium plant (destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in September last year) demonstrates, all timelines are off when North Korea, Russia or any other state provides assistance.
Only the most naive Democrat or isolationist Republican can ignore Iranian statements promising not only the acquisition of nuclear weapons but their use. On December 14, 2001, for example, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, perhaps Iran's second most powerful man and one often labelled a pragmatist by Western journalists, suggested that it may not be far-fetched to envision use of nuclear weapons against Israel.
Amid chants of "death to Israel", he declared: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything ... It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality."
Rafsanjani's statements soon became the rule rather than the exception. On February 14, 2005, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, declared: "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn't be afraid of anyone. The US is no more than a barking dog." And on May 29, 2005, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hasani, the Supreme Leader's personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran's top goals. "An atom bomb ... must be produced," he said. "That is because the Koran has told Muslims to 'get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal'." The following February, Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the Islamic Republic's staunchest ideologues, said it was natural for Iran to possess nuclear weapons.
Whether Obama or McCain next occupies the Oval Office may be irrelevant as far as Washington's policy towards Iran is concerned, for the Iranian regime will soon disabuse the next president of any utopian belief in the power of diplomacy he may have. On July 18 this year, the same day that President Bush reversed course and sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva to discuss a broad incentive package to be granted Tehran should it agree to abide by its UN commitments, Mohammad Jafar Assadi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces, declared that the concession proved that "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated".
With diplomacy doomed to fail, Obama or McCain will ratchet up sanctions within months of taking office. While unconditional Russian support for Iran undercuts the utility of the UN action, the new president, European leaders and, hopefully, the Australian Prime Minister will pursue unilateral sanctions. For instance, the entire Iranian banking system could be designated as engaged in deceptive financial practices, a move that, in effect, would remove the Islamic Republic from the world's financial system. Meanwhile, efforts to contain Iran will increase, with weapons sales to regional states, increased naval deployments and, as a last resort, military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Ironically, an Obama win may well accelerate conflict as Tehran tests the young senator, much as the Soviet Union's test of the young John F. Kennedy set off a cascade of events that almost led to nuclear war. Here, the world may find its notion of the Democrats' pacifism wrong. Much of the Democrats' anti-war rhetoric has more to do with politics and anti-Bush sentiment than it does with ideological opposition to the use of force.
Obama's supporters argue that a McCain win would mean four more years of Bush policies.
What they omit is that, their utopian embrace of diplomacy disabused, an Obama win could mean eight more years of the same.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and was principal drafter of the Bipartisan Policy Center's taskforce on US policy towards Iranian nuclear development.