Over the past two weeks there has been something like a competition between Republicans and Democrats to see who can do more for Israel by hyping Iran as a threat. Mitt Romney fired the first shot while speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, accusing the president of “undermining” Israel and citing the Islamic Republic as the world’s greatest threat. Barack Obama fired back with a public signing of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, coupled with a leaked report that his national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, had briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the details of U.S. plans to attack Iran.

Romney then traveled to Israel, where he declared Jerusalem to be its capital, dissed the Palestinians without mentioning them by name, and gave a green light for an Israeli attack on Iran, while pledging to stop Iran from acquiring the capability to engineer a nuclear weapon — something it already has. And he promised to take steps soon, before Tehran can harden its nuclear sites.

Obama’s countermove was to send Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Israel just after Romney departed to reassure the Israelis that the White House is serious about using force against Iran.

Moving on to phase two, Republicans and Democrats together are tightening the screws on Iran. On July 25, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hosted a session on “Iran’s support for terrorism in the Middle East” that featured leading neoconservatives Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, and Matthew Levitt of the AIPAC-spawned Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Six days later, President Obama issued an executive order blocking transactions from several Iranian banks and blacklisting other foreign banks that facilitate the purchase of Iranian oil, while the State Department issued its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011. Announcing the release of the report, Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, opined that “Iran is and remains the preeminent terrorism sponsor in the world.” On Wednesday there was a vote in the House of Representatives on the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, House Resolution 1095. It had 364 co-sponsors and passed by a vote of 421 to 6.  It will now go to the Senate where it could well pass unanimously.

It should surprise no one that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been operating to increase pressure on Iran. There has been a series of letters and fact sheets advising Congress on the issue since the first draft of HR 1095 surfaced last year. It is generally believed that the bill was actually written by AIPAC. The following letter was sent to every congressman on Tuesday, on the eve of the vote on the Iran Threat Reduction Act. It was sent out on AIPAC letterhead and was signed by Executive Director Howard Kohr and two other AIPAC officers:

July 31, 2012

Vote Yes – The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (H.R.1905)

Dear Representative,

We write in strong support of H.R. 1905, The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012. The legislation, authored by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Howard Berman, will be considered by the House on Wednesday. We strongly urge you to vote YES.

In an effort to dissuade Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, the House overwhelmingly passed in December the Iran Threat Reduction Act which tightened sanctions on Iran. The version that has now emerged from House-Senate negotiations includes the strongest set of sanctions ever enacted to isolate any country with which we were not in armed hostilities. H.R. 1905 incorporates legislative initiatives of many members from both the House and Senate and will: place virtually all of Iran’s energy, financial, and transportation sectors under U.S. sanction. Companies conducting business with Iran in these sectors face losing access to U.S. markets; impose sanctions designed to prevent Iran from repatriating any proceeds from its oil sales, thus depriving Iran of 80 percent of its hard currency earnings and half of the funds to support its national budget; impose tough new sanctions on the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); target Iran’s use of barter transactions to bypass sanctions, the provision of insurance to Iran’s energy sector, and the provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran;   click here to learn more about the legislation and how it will raise the pressure on Iran.

In the past six months, the United States and our international partners have substantially increased the economic pressure on Iran and engaged in several rounds of talks with Tehran. Unfortunately, Iran has rebuffed the opportunity for serious negotiations while stepping up the pace of its nuclear program.

America and our allies must unite in a tough response to Iran’s belligerent approach. We must continue to send a strong message to Tehran that it will face unremitting pressure until it complies with its international obligations and end its nuclear weapons quest.

We strongly support The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (H.R. 1905) and urge you to vote YES on Wednesday.

The letter demonstrates how AIPAC operates, and it makes several points to support its contention that Iran is a major threat, arguments that are either flat-out wrong or greatly exaggerated. Not surprisingly, these arguments have been picked up in the media and by members of Congress and have been repeated nearly verbatim as if they were fact.

The letter boasts of “the strongest set of sanctions ever enacted to isolate any country with which we were not in armed hostilities placing  virtually all of Iran’s energy, financial, and transportation sectors under U.S. sanction.” Why? “Because Iran has rebuffed the opportunity for serious negotiations” and it has not complied “with its international obligations and end its nuclear weapons quest.” After the vote, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had co-sponsored the bill, echoed those sentiments, stating that the legislation “seeks to tighten the chokehold on the regime beyond anything that has been done before.”

The 144-page Iran Threat Reduction Act enhances existing sanctions in a number of areas while also establishing new legal authority to go after anyone who provides equipment or technology or facilitates oil sales. The act’s critics claim it does not go far enough, with Mark Dubowitz of the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies calling for “comprehensive economic warfare. Everything must be prohibited unless it is permitted.” Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute puts it another way: “This is time for the mallet, not fine needle surgery … our purpose is to bring them to the table to give up their nuclear ambitions.”  Even J Street, which claims to support Israel while seeking peace in the Middle East, commended the bill.

Lest there be any confusion, the new bill — coming on top of previous legislation and executive orders, not to mention the covert Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses — sets the stage for war against Iran, a country that has not attacked the United States nor threatened to do so unless it is attacked first. Supporters of the bill and many commentators on it copy the language used by AIPAC, citing Iran’s purported quest for a nuclear weapon as their fundamental argument for the sanctions regime and possible military intervention. If this seems reminiscent of the lead up to war against Iraq in 2003, it should.

There is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program. It is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its nuclear sites are regularly inspected by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, none of its low-level enriched uranium has been diverted, it has a legal right to enrich uranium for use in power plants, and its political leadership has declared that it is not seeking a weapon. The CIA and Israel’s Mossad agree that Iran has no program to produce a nuke.

Regarding the negotiations between Iran and the U.S. over its nuclear energy program, there is certainly enough mud to stick to everyone involved, but Iran has several times proposed compromise solutions whereby its uranium could be shifted out of the country for enrichment to a low level sufficient for its power-generating reactors. These approaches have been rebuffed by the United States, and it is difficult to believe that Washington is seriously seeking a diplomatic solution. Former intelligence officer and Iran specialist Hillary Mann Leverett notes that the United States has hardly spoken to Iranian negotiators since 2008.

Finally, there is the terrorism issue. There is considerable disagreement over whether Iran has been behind recent terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, most particularly as the modus operandi fits al-Qaeda much better. The annual State Department terrorism report struggles to make a case for Iranian support of terrorism but has to resort to citing last year’s plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, an alleged conspiracy that has been thoroughly debunked.

The drive to demonize Iran might well be considered little more than Washington theater of the absurd in an election year, but it is deadly serious. War with Iran might unleash forces best left undisturbed, and the consequences for U.S. forces in the Middle East could be grave. And then there is the frail global economy, which hardly needs an oil shock.

But the beat goes on about the threat posed by Iran, orchestrated by groups like AIPAC and repeated verbatim by politicians and the mainstream media. Evidently the half-truths and out-and-out lies have convinced a lot of people that Iran is rightfully the enemy. A recent poll reveals that fully 80 percent of Americans believe that Iran’s nuclear program threatens the United States, while two thirds of the public thinks sanctions will be ineffective. Most Americans believe incorrectly that Iran already has a nuclear weapon.

To go to war a second time in ten years over nothing would be shameful, but it is clear that no one in Washington who matters is resisting the stampede.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.