Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have ratcheted up over the past few months over a number of issues, including Iran's apparent nuclear weapons program; Iran's threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz, a key crude oil transit hub, in retaliation for western sanctions; and warnings that Israel may consider a military strike on Iran to destroy its atomic ambitions.
Indeed, relations between Washington and Teheran have been bad for the past three decades, but it seems like we are now on the brink of something deadly and long-lasting. The possibility of a war against Iran is no longer in the realm of fantasy.
In the U.S., meanwhile, a presidential election looms.
Given that the American economy remains fragile with high joblessness, the country's foreign policy with respect to Iran may not dominate voters' minds yet... but that could change if the situation in the Persian Gulf continues to deteriorate.
International Business Times spoke with an expert on U.S. political affairs and foreign policy to discuss how Iran may impact the elections.
Jamie Chandler is a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City.
IB TIMES: As the rhetoric between Iran and the West escalates, do you think the nuclear threat posed by Iran will become the dominant the issue of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, superseding the economy?
CHANDLER: Most likely not, unless the situation escalates to a more significant conflict, such as Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz.
IB TIMES: From a purely self-serving political perspective, would talking tough against Iran boost President Obama's popularity and help him regain the White House?
CHANDLER: The public isn't paying as much attention to foreign policy as it is the economy policy; it still views Iran as an existential threat. President Obama's approval rating (and re-election) campaign is likely to get a marginal boost based on his handling of this situation, but he has been polling well in this category for some time.
IB TIMES: Would Obama be wiser to focus on foreign policy during the election in order to have less attention on the still-shaky economy?
CHANDLER: If this were a wartime presidency, like President George W. Bush's, then the President could effectively frame his campaign around foreign policy. But it's about the economy, and the majority of his campaign rhetoric has to respond to that.
IB TIMES: Assuming tensions with Iran continue to increase, the Republicans will obviously take a hawkish stance against Teheran. (Mitt Romney has already advocated military action against Iran to cancel out its nuclear program). But could such rhetoric harm the GOP since Obama is already taking a tough stand on Iran?
CHANDLER: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have not articulated a consistent and compelling foreign policy argument yet. All are predominantly following an establishment view of the U.S.' role in global affairs but have made inconsistent statements on this.
Romney in particular has changed his position on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars three times since December and has also made some contradictory statements on defense spending.
The GOP's hawkish stance is out-of-step with the public's view that the U.S. should shrink its global military presence, Ron Paul's non interventionist philosophy speaks to this. But in all cases, President Obama benefits if tensions escalate. As president, he can use his bully pulpit power to shift the campaign agenda on foreign policy
IB TIMES: Would a hawkish stance on Iran alienate Obama's liberal supporters? Or is the threat of a nuclear Iran something that Democrats and Republicans can unite upon?
CHANDLER: The liberal and progressive wings of the Democratic Party are having a difficult time reconciling their views that the U.S. should execute a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, but also remain actively engaged in protecting democratic protestors in the Arab world -- liberals would like to see an Arab Spring-like uprising in Iran.
If the Iranian situation escalates to a clear and present danger to American interests, particularly if gas prices skyrocket from the crisis, then politicians and the public will rally around the president, regardless of partisan and ideological affiliations.
IB TIMES: Obama has already increased sanctions against Iran's oil exports and it looks like the European Union will do likewise. But Iran remains intransigent about maintaining its nuclear program. What do you think Obama can do next to tighten the screws further on the Iranians?
CHANDLER: The President is going to need to aggressively get Russia and China to take a more active role in pushing Iran to back down. But this is going to be very difficult because China is Iran's largest customer for oil and gas supplies, and China have been historically reluctant to jeopardize its economic interests by getting publically tough on rouge states.
Russia is also a problem because of its long-standing economic and military ties with the Iranian regime, although it has been curtailing arms sales to the country for the past few years.
Obama is also going to have to get more active in encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with Iran.
IB TIMES: If the Iranians carry out their threat of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, would that alone prompt a declaration of war from the U.S. and/or Europe?
CHANDLER: The U.S. will probably not declare war. The last time Congress issued an official declaration of war was in 1941. The most likely scenario would be emergency military action in conjunction with building a coalition of allies with Europe and working with the United Nation's Security Council to issue a unified statement of support.
The president would also need to go on a public opinion offensive domestically. This is usually done by clearly communicating the danger to U.S. interests and working with Congress to pass a war resolution.
War resolutions demonstrate to the public and the nation's allies that the federal government is unified in its views on handling the situation. War resolutions have become the default standard since Vietnam to give the President broad authority to deploy significant military resources rapidly.
IB TIMES: Would declaring war against Iran be unthinkable for whoever wins the 2012 election?
CHANDLER: It depends on the severity, timing, and circumstances of the situation. If it becomes a significant threat to U.S. interests, then the President, regardless of who he is, will act.
IB TIMES: With the US military establishment facing budget cuts, will the rising tensions with Iran lead Congress to curtail such cuts or even revoke them?
CHANDLER: The Budget Control Act of 2011 set a number of significant defense budget cuts that will trigger into effect in 2013 because the Super Committee failed to issue a deficit reduction plan last November.
The GOP has signaled that it will seek to appeal these cuts, but Democrats are in opposition. If the tensions escalate, the cuts will become moot. Both parties will agree to suspend or appeal the triggers and give the military enough resources to pay for a military build-up.
IB TIMES: Isn't Iran already hopelessly isolated anyway, especially now that China appears to be distancing itself from Tehran by seeking oil deals with the Arab countries and that its ally the Syrian regime of Assad is likely to fall?
CHANDLER: Iran has had tough economic sanctions for years, but this hasn't prevented it from building a healthy oil and gas trade relationship with both Russia and China. China is most likely making a symbolic effort to appear that it's distancing itself, but it's not likely that it would do it to the degree that would jeopardize its energy supplies.
The U.S. and Europe are reaching the limit of implementing useful economic sanctions.