Well, this Iran situation looks like it will continue its arc of incessantly increasing interestingness. The Iranians steadfastly refuse to fold on any points as a precondition for talks - a position that, perhaps, shouldn't have been as surprising as it was. I was truly hopeful that Iran would play ball, take its essentially meaningless lumps as a silent nod to the superpower in the room and get what they really wanted anyway. Instead, they've decided to rub our noses in the fact that George W. Bush has squandered our moral and strategic superiority, daring us to further prove our impotence. Oh well.
Bush will continue the escalating rhetoric in a continuous series of speeches, and speak to the General Assembly of the U.N about Iran's intransigence. He will question the relevance of the body should they not support "robust," or "firm" action. This will be one part of a large effort to lay the groundwork for the final October push on Iran. They'll push for tough action using every tool at their disposal. One of those tools is the President's Executive Authority as Commander in Chief, and we've seen Rove use that power politically before. In the quest to figure out how the Democrats are going to lose this election, let's think about how the President could use the power of the Executive to take unilateral action against Iran.
Of course, War with Iran is out of the question, so there will be no dramatic morning bombing extravaganzas. It will have to be a soft escalation - something that might look prudent to the American people yet will still be useful in cementing the narrative of President Bush the Great Protector.
So, it needs to be an action that the President can take unilaterally using his Executive Authority, but it can't be anything that would readily be called "war." We do have troops on either side of Iran's country, so we could try to close the borders and thereby enact unilateral sanctions, although this is of limited usefulness since there is a substantial length of Iran's border that we cannot control. We could blockade their ports, and try to squeeze the oil revenue from the country and decrease imports in general. The blockade would preposition ships to interdict the mine laying that would undoubtedly be one of Iran's retaliations against open war, so it would be a forward leaning move towards War without actually being War. Unfortunately, at the same this that this strategy helps protect the Strait of Hormuz, through which 35-40% of the world's oil flows, it also completely defeats the "over the horizon" strategy. In other words, by blockading Iran's ports, our ships are not just open to attack - they are in danger of being sunk outright by a simple brace of anti-ship missiles.
Taking it all into account, I think that if the Bush Administration believed there would be no escalation, a blockade might be likely. I'm not an expert on the broadly arrayed levers of power the President has available to him, but subtlety is not something we're looking for here. Can anyone think of something else showy enough to be politically useful that isn't tantamount to War with Iran?