By Lloyd Nelson
11/25/07 — At the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas
earlier this month, the mother of a U.S. soldier raised concerns that
the United States might go to war with Iran. Sen. Barack Obama took
the opening to accuse Sen. Hillary Clinton, the party’s front-runner,
of enabling the Bush Administration’s next war by endorsing a
resolution condemning Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist
The moment passed. But Iran remains a provocative and somewhat
unpredictable subject in the 2008 presidential primaries.
The issue of how to deal with a country poised to continue its nuclear
program despite warnings from the United States, Britain, France and
Germany is a matter over which Americans are deeply divided. According
to a USA Today/Gallup Poll released Nov. 5, roughly 73 percent of
those surveyed said the United States should use economic sanctions
and diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program while only 18 percent
favored military action.
However, 46 percent said military action should be taken if Iran
develops nuclear capabilities and diplomacy fails while 45 percent
ruled out a military strike altogether.
In the meantime, candidates of both parties are being forced to take a
stand about how they’d approach Iran under their administration.
They’re views range from Obama’s statement that he’d negotiate with
anyone in an effort to bring about a safer world to former New York
Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s view that only by threatening war can the United
States cow Iran into stopping its nuclear program .
Earlier this month, Giuliani, the front-runner among Republican
candidates, took on the issue at St. Anselm College in Manchester,
N.H. He said he believes that the United States needs to rely on its
nuclear arsenal to strengthen its position in negotiating with Iran
and that Americans need to be willing to go to war in order to obtain
leverage in talks.
“I wouldn’t ever unilaterally disarm the United States,” Giuliani
said. “And I certainly wouldn’t do it right now in the face of the
Islamic terrorists’ war against us, in the face of an Iran that wants
to be nuclear.”
The speech was nothing new for Giuliani, who since last September has
been comparing Iran’s uranium enriching programs to the days of the
Cold War. Playing off that comparison, Giuliani has likened himself to
Ronald Reagan, suggesting that tough diplomacy linked to the threat of
military action is the best way to negotiate.
“I’m not overestimating the threat,” he said. “I’m just taking them
at their word, and my conclusion is that it would be too irresponsible
and too dangerous to allow Iran to become nuclear.”
Giuliani’s hard-line stance on Iran can be tied to Norman Podhoretz, a
senior advisor on the former New York mayor’s foreign policy team who
has been characterized as the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism.
Podhoretz is a firm believer that the United States should bomb Iran.
In his most recent book, World War IV: The Struggle Against
, Podhoretz asserts that any attempt to negotiate
with Iran is equivalent to appeasement with Nazi Germany.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Podhoretz said: “If Bush
… fails to do what I think he will do, Rudy seems to me to be the
best bet for doing what is necessary.”
Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist,
believes that Giuliani’s perspective plays well with the Republican
base, especially in New Hampshire, where voters tend to be a bit more
hawkish towards the war.
“Giuliani is the most optimistic and aggressive on the war on terror,” he said.
Some independents also are listening. Chip Underhill, a registered
New Hampshire Independent, said he votes in whichever of the two
parties primaries he deems closer. He said he considerss Iran an
“extremely important” issue and likes Giuliani’s tough stance.
“We need someone who’s pretty tough as the president of the United
States,” Underhill said.
If Giuliani’s stance may be the toughest against Iran, his two main
opponents, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain
are not far behind. Romney has stressed economic sanctions in order to
isolate Iran diplomatically before engaging in direct negotiations. He
also believes the Iranian president should be tried for war crimes.
“There is one place of course where I’d welcome (Iranian President
Mahmoud) Ahamdinejad with open arms: and that’s in a court where he
would stand trial for incitement to genocide under the terms of the
Genocide Convention,” Romney said at Yeshiva University on April 6.
McCain agrees with economic sanctions, and also believes the United
States should bolster its regional military posture to make clear to
Iran our determination to protect our forces in Iraq.
While McCain says military action is his last option, he also says he
would not shy away from military intervention if it prevented a
nuclear-armed Iran. However, he said he wouldn’t do it without meeting
with Congress.
“I would at a minimum consult with the leaders of Congress because
there may become a time where you need the approval of Congress,”
McCain said at the Republican debate on Oct. 9.
With Republicans asserting themselves against Iran on the campaign
trail, another Republican, President Bush, has pushed forward
sanctions to persuade Iran to stop trying to build the nuclear weapons
the country denies it is seeking.
On Oct. 25, the administration announced fresh sanctions against the
Iranian regime. No American may engage in financial transactions with
the Revolutionary Guard or any of their many associated businesses,
nor with the al-Quds force, which is an elite arm of the Revolutionary
Guards, nor with three state-owned Iranian banks: Bank Mellim Bank
Mellat and Bank Saderat.
That announcement followed a Sept. 26 Senate vote to support the
controversial Kyl-Lieberman resolution declaring Iran’s Revolutionary
Guard a terrorist organization. Clinton supported that amendment after
two paragraphs were removed. But at Demcratic presidential debates she
has also said she opposes any “rush to war,” adding there was “no
basis” for the fear the Senate resolution authorized such an attack.
Obama missed the vote but said he would of voted against it, claiming
it’s a blank check for Bush to go to war.
“As we learned with the authorization of the Iraq War—when you give
this president a blank check, you can’t be surprised when he cashes
it,” Obama said.
Obama, who is relatively inexperienced in foreign relations, has
attempted to walk a very different line with Iran than Giuliani. Like
other Democrats, he has not ruled out military action against Iran but
would focus first on diplomacy. Where he has differed from Clinton is
in his professed willingness to meet directly with leaders of even
hostile foreign countries. Clinton has emphasized the need to use
high-level presidential envoys to measure the terrain before jumping
into diplomacy with the leaders of rogue states.
“But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North
Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would
be,” Clinton said at the Democratic CNN/YouTube debate in July.
Obama has pushed back by speaking directly against Clinton’s policy of
refusing to talk with leaders of unfriendly nations, especially Iran.
At the very same July debate, Obama said he would be willing as
president to meet with Iran’s Ahmadinejad.
“And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to
countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding
diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous,” Obama
Clinton has called for sanctions as well as diplomacy, a position not
so different from Obama’s.
But Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of hostile nations places
a stronger emphasis on diplomacy, an approach he believes could change
favorably the world’s view of America.
“A serious, coordinated, diplomatic effort will, if nothing else,
change world opinion about our approach to Iran and will strengthen
our ability should they choose not to stand down on the nuclear issue,
for example, or to continue to engage in hostile activity even if
directly inside Iraq,” Obama said in an interview with the New
York Times
on Oct. 31.
Pointing to the situation that led to war in Iraq, a war he often
points out he never supported, Obama said. the need for dialogue with
Iran and Syria is dire because of the high level of uncertainty in the
“One of the first things I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic
effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to send
a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria, because they’re going
to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses,” Obama said.
Clinton responded quickly, calling Obama’s remarks “irresponsible and
frankly, naïve.” Obama shot back by criticizing Clinton for voting for
the Kyl-Lieberman. “I don’t want to give this president any excuse,
any opening for war,” Obama said.
Former Sen. John Edwards, who has been Clinton’s most outspoken
critic, agrees with Obama that Clinton’s vote for the resolution is
dangerous. He supports low-level diplomacy coupled with economic
“Instead of saber rattling about military action, we should employ an
effective combination of carrots and sticks,” Edwards wrote in the
September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. “For example, right now we
must do everything we can to isolate Iran’s leader from the moderate
forces within the country,”
Scala said he believes that Obama and other Democratic candidates are
hoping that Iran will play as the wedge issue that Iraq failed to be.
By pointing toward Clinton’s vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, he
said,Obama and Edwards have tried to differentiate themselves from the
New York senator and to give voters a chance to look at what a Clinton
presidency might be like.
Dr. Brent Lollis, executive director of the American Iranian Council,
a nonprofit and nonpartisan tax-exempt educational organization
dedicated to improving US-Iran relations, says Iran is being used in
different ways by each political party. He sees Democrats swinging to
the left and Republicans rushing to the right, while Clinton
maintains a more centrist approach that appeals to the general
“Iran,” he said, “simply provides convenient material for the primary
and for the general election.”