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The Iranian Bomb: Where the Presidential Candidates Stand

The next president will face a crisis from his or her earliest days in office, writes Richard Miniter. Who is best prepared to deal with the growing Iranian nuclear threat? Hint: listen to what the candidates have said and done.

by
Richard Miniter

Bio

February 1, 2008 - 1:00 am

What will the next president do about Iran’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons? We looked at the official statements of the leading candidates of both parties.

The Building Crisis

Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most important issues facing the nation — and yet one that few presidential candidates talk about. The mullahs have upped the ante by pushing aggressively the enrichment of uranium, an essential step in the development of nuclear weapons. The oil-rich nation claims that the enrichment program is for fueling nuclear power plants to provide electricity. Iran has refused to be supplied with enriched uranium in exchange for promising not to develop it themselves. Iran’s central argument for nuclear plants is a growing domestic desire for electricity. This contention seems plausible, until one realizes Iran exports significant quantities of electricity to Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi city of Baquba, some 40 miles north of Baghdad, is almost entirely illuminated by electricity from Iran. (Interestingly, those power lines have never been targeted by insurgents.) Iraqi Kurdistan also receives significant amounts of power from the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei unveiled the Shahab-3 missile system on July 20, 2003. This missile, with a range of 1,500 km, could easily strike Israel. Analysts believe this missile could be adapted to carry nuclear warheads. The Shahab-4, which is still in development, will be able to reach Europe.

Finally, Iran is the single-largest state sponsor of international terrorism, according to the State Department. The Islamic Republic finances Hezbollah and elements of Hamas, while Iran’s state-run radio reports that Iran shelters some 500 al-Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden’s oldest son and heir apparent.

So far, the United Nations has failed to halt the Iranian program. Few credit the recently released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which contends that Iran ceased enrichment in 2003. The NIE was famously wrong about Iraq in 2002 as well as India and Pakistan in the 1990s.

So the next administration will face a Cuban-missile level crisis from its earliest days. What does each of the remaining candidates plan to do about it?

Clinton

Senator Hillary Clinton, who famously voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, but changed her mind, is doing it all over again with Iran. She is supporting a tough stance against the Islamic regime, having supported the Kyl-Lieberman bill, which asks that the Bush administration designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization.

Clinton said after the vote, “The Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program and have substantial links with Hezbollah.”

Hillary Clinton’s website seems to show a pattern of activity against Iranian designs, while at the same time restraining the president from military action against the regime. She:

Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Senator Clinton flips:

We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. And in dealing with this threat, as I’ve also said for a long time, no option can be taken off the table. But America must proceed deliberately and wisely, and we must proceed as a unified nation. … Currently, our intelligence on Iran is of uncertain quality. We need to examine the facts closely and carefully. No action can or should be taken without explicit Congressional authorization. And knowing what we know now, this body needs a steady stream of real, verifiable intelligence.

NBC’s Tim Russert forces a revealing confrontation with Clinton:

MR. RUSSERT: Would you make a promise as a potential commander in chief that you will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and will use any means to stop it?

SENATOR CLINTON: Well, what I have said is that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, including the use of diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, opening up direct talks. We haven’t even tried. That’s what is so discouraging about this. So then you have the Republican candidates on the other side jumping to the kind of statements that you just read to us. We need a concerted, comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran . We haven’t had it. We need it. And I will provide it.

Obama

Senator Barack Obama has the distinction of having voted against the Iraq war. However, there are some odd inconsistencies to be accounted for. Regarding Pakistan, Obama stated that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” That logic does not, however, extend to Iran, which is actively exporting weapons to the Iraqi insurgents, resulting in American deaths.

Senator Obama said he would meet without preconditions with any remaining member of the Axis of Evil to continue the traditional “talks.” As for Iran, he would also be willing to accept certain conditions before talking to the country, such as giving economic inducements for the regime to open a dialog and even promising that he would not seek “regime change.” These concessions would take any opposition to the Islamic government off the table, including support of dissidents. He did not vote for the Kyl-Lieberman bill – or against it. While not in the Senate for the vote, he says he would have voted against it had he been there.

  • “I would meet directly with Iranian leaders. I would meet directly with Syrian leaders. We would engage in a level of aggressive personal diplomacy in which a whole host of issues are on the table. … Iran and Syria would start changing their behavior if they started seeing that they had some incentives to do so, but right now the only incentive that exists is our president suggesting that if you do what we tell you, we may not blow you up.” (NYT Q&A, 10/31/2007)
  • “I have a plan right now to make sure that private pension funds in this country can divest from their holdings in Iran. Until we have gathered the international community to put the squeeze on Iran economically, then we shouldn’t be having conversations about attacks in Iran.” (Democratic Debate, 9/27/2007)
  • “I think Iran understands what military threats we boast. They’re not surprised we could strike them and strike them hard. What we haven’t suggested in any way is what advantages they would have in acting more responsibly in the region. That’s then the missing ingredient.” (NPR, 10/13/2007)

Obama’s record in the Senate is essentially a straddle.

Romney

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, seems to hold the more hawkish position on Iran that Giuliani did. He has consistently been skeptical of the mullahs’ alleged need for nuclear power. Generally, he has stated his intention to take whatever action is necessary in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

  • “First, we should severely tighten economic sanctions. I think the Bush administration deserves a lot of recognition for restricting access to our banking and credit services, because financial, and credit and monetary penalties are some of the most effective sanctions there are. And we must get other nations to act now to follow our lead. … Second, I think it’s important for us to isolate Iran diplomatically. Their leaders should be made to feel exactly like those of Apartheid South Africa, or worse. … Of course, we can communicate and talk with Iran. … But until there are indications that high level engagement would do anything other than reward bad behavior, I don’t believe that we should be engaging Iran in direct, bilateral negotiations over their nuclear weapons program.” (Speech at Yeshiva University, 4/6/2007)
  • “There is one place of course where I’d welcome Ahmadinejad 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.” (Speech at Yeshiva University, 4/6/2007)
  • “You sit down with your attorneys and [they] tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what’s in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. … Certainly what you want to do is to have the agreement of all the people in leadership of our government, as well as our friends around the world where those circumstances are available. But the key thing here is to make sure that we don’t have to use military action against Iran.” (Republican Debate, 10/9/2007)

Huckabee

Regarding Iran, like a fish you cannot quite grab, Huckabee denied even reading that the NIE concluded that Iran stopped “something” in 2003 (though the intelligence analysts do not know precisely what was stopped), contradicting the 2005 NIE. He takes the seemingly safe middle ground position of talking to the Iranian regime, which he thinks was unfortunately alienated by President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech.

In making his point about the wisdom of talking to Iran some more, Huckabee wrote an article in Foreign Affairs and referred to a quotation he claims is from The Art of War by Sun Tzu: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Actually, that quotation is from the foreign policy expert Michael Corleone of the fictional Godfather movies. In his Foreign Affairs article, he likens the American relationship with Iran to that of a child and parent needing to talk. (It would be interesting to hear Pastor Huckabee’s reaction to Iran’s demand that America speedily convert to Islam.)

In Foreign Affairs magazine, Huckabee writes:

The Bush administration has properly said that it will not take the military option for dealing with Iran off the table. Neither will I. But if we do not put other options on the table, eventually a military strike will become the only viable one. And nothing would make bin Laden happier than this outcome; he would welcome war between the United States and Iran. … Both Iran and al Qaeda seek not just to dominate Israel but to destroy it and control the Palestinians. And I will not waver in standing by our ally Israel. The main difference between these two enemies is that al Qaeda is a movement that must be destroyed, whereas Iran is a nation that just has to be contained.

In order to contain Iran, it is essential to win in Iraq. … We cannot allow Iran to push its theocracy into Iraq and then expand it further west.

Another way to contain Iran is through diplomacy. We must be as aggressive diplomatically as we have been militarily since 9/11. [Other Countries] must realize that if the United States does end up taking military action, they will bear some responsibility for having failed to maximize peaceful options.

[...]

Before we put boots on the ground elsewhere, we had better have wingtips there first.

National Review hit the nail on the head about Huckabee’s weak and rather na√Øve approach to foreign policy:

He wants to anthropomorphize international relations and bring a Christian commitment to the Golden Rule to our affairs with other nations. As he told the Des Moines Register the other day, “You treat others the way you’d like to be treated. That’s to me the fundamental issue that has to be re-established in our dealings with other countries.”

This is deeply na√Øve. Countries aren’t people, and the world is more dangerous than a Sunday church social. Threats, deception, and — as a last resort — violence must play a role in international relations. Differences cannot always be worked out through sweet persuasion. A U.S. president who doesn’t realize this will repeat the experience of President Jimmy Carter at his most ineffectual.

McCain

Senator John McCain of Arizona, a strong supporter of the Iraq “surge” plan when escalation of America’s commitment there was unpopular, is a strong opponent to Iran’s nuclear designs. While in New Hampshire, Senator McCain questioned the accuracy of the NIE. As a result of the existence of the NIE, he committed to a stronger intelligence-gathering capability during his presidency and, in a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace on December 9, 2007, he said that the military option must always remain on the table.

Despite McCain’s view that the president needs Congressional approval to strike Iran, last spring at an event in South Carolina, a voter asked how America could tolerate a nuclear Iran. McCain responded to the tune of the Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann”: “Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran.”

  • “I think the president’s right to start with trying to bankrupt them before we bomb them. That’s a good way to start. But we have to be prepared to take, again, whatever action. And I don’t want to go through every possible scenario other than to say that that would mean just what it says. Whatever it takes.” (CNN, 10/28/2007)
  • “If you have the time and the luxury of going to Congress, that’s always better. … What you never do is let the American people one day get hit with a nuclear device because you had politics going on in Washington instead of the protection of the American people first.” (Republican Debate, 10/9/07)

Richard Miniter is PJ Media’s Washington correspondent.

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