Candidates’ Talk on Iran is More Rhetoric Than Substance

Republicans may be talking tough on Iran and Democrats may be warning against possible recklessness by the Bush administration, but beyond the campaign rhetoric the differences start to disappear, pro-Israel lobbyists and political observers say.

That’s cause for concern, they add, for those who want specific answers from the 2008 presidential candidates about what to do about Iran’s nuclear potential.

In their more aggressive posture, the Republican hopefuls are emphasizing military action as a possibility. Democrats, conversely, are competing for the most cautious mantle — particularly in taking aim at U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) over her vote earlier this month for an amendment calling for the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.

Go to the policy papers, however, and not much differentiates the candidates: Republicans, running away from a president now perceived to have eschewed diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq war, clearly favor talk, and Democrats promise never to take the military option off the table.

Such fuzziness frustrates officials at pro-Israel organizations who want clearer notions of where the candidates stand. Some of these officials spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, not wanting to be identified with any campaign or party.

“I haven’t heard anyone out there who has a good plan to deal with this issue,” one Jewish official said.

Several Republicans, notably former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have surrounded themselves with advisers who embrace Bush’s practice of overriding the concerns of the international community.

“We’ve seen what Iran will do with ordinary weapons,” Giuliani, his party’s front-runner, told the Republican Jewish Coalition earlier this month. “If I’m president, I guarantee you we will never find out what they would do with nuclear weapons because they’re not going to get them.”

Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said “Iran has to understand that not only is the military on the table, it is in our hand.”

That wasn’t some “far-flung idea,” Romney said. “We are poised and ready to act.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed their thoughts.

“At the end of the day, we cannot allow the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Still, some Jewish officials noted, GOP hopefuls have also stressed diplomacy.

Writing in the September edition of Foreign Affairs, Giuliani implicitly criticized Bush by citing President Reagan during the Cold War.

“He was open to the possibility of negotiations but ready to walk away if talking went nowhere,” Giuliani wrote.

Although Giuliani stressed that he would “never accept a bad deal for the sake of making a deal,” he noted, “This is not to say that talks with Iran cannot possibly work. They could — but only if we came to the table in a position of strength, knowing what we wanted.”

Romney suggested in a debate he would not be as quick on the trigger as his rhetoric has suggested.

Asked what he would do were he told as president that Iran had acquired nuclear capabilities, he said, “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.”

Among the Democrats, Jewish officials said, the four leaders in the race talk tough on Iran but also note that sanctions legislation has been stalled — especially compared with similar legislation targeting Sudan, which is quickly wending its way toward passage.

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator nipping at Clinton’s heels among voters in Iowa — the agenda-setting first caucus state — offered a hawkish speech to Israeli security officials earlier this year, but recently termed as “saber rattling” Clinton’s vote for sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who polls also show to be competitive against Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, slammed the party’s front-runner for providing ammunition for what he contends is Bush’s plan to expand the Iraq war into Iran.

Obama said the sanctions legislation, sponsored by Sens. John Kyl (R-Aariz) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn), “made the case for President Bush that we need to use our military presence in Iraq to counter Iran — a case that has nothing to do with sanctioning the Revolutionary Guard.”

Obama was absent for the Kyl-Lieberman vote, but Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), two second-tier candidates, did vote against and also have made much of Clinton’s vote in favor.

In response, Clinton has emphasized her own anti-war credentials, citing her co-sponsorship of a bill originated by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would keep Bush from spending appropriated Iraq war money to attack Iran.

The major Iran reference on her campaign Web site is a February Senate speech that anticipates her support for the Webb bill.

“In dealing with the threats posed by the Iranian regime, which has gained its expanding influence in Iraq and the region as a result of the Administration’s policies, President Bush must not be allowed to act without the authority and oversight of Congress,” she said at the time. “It would be a mistake of historical proportion if the Administration thought that the 2002 resolution authorizing force against Iraq was a blank check for the use of force against Iran without further Congressional authorization.”

Some observers have noted that despite the recent Democratic squabbling, all the candidates have spoken about the need for diplomacy and the possibility of military action.

“The top Democratic contenders opened up a PR rift to distinguish themselves from one another on how to deal with Iran, but behind the rhetoric they don’t really disagree,” the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times’ Politifact blog said in its top story Tuesday.

In his contribution to Foreign Policy, Obama sounded a dual note.

“Our policy of issuing threats and relying on intermediaries to curb Iran’s nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional aggression is failing,” Obama wrote. “Although we must not rule out using military force, we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran.”

Obama recently was caught having to explain his criticism of Clinton’s vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment after the Clinton campaign noted that earlier this year he had voted for similar sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards.

Israel does not want the military option removed, but has the most to lose if it comes to a firefight and wants all diplomatic options exhausted.

Officials in Jerusalem fear a nuclear Iran less because of the potential for a confrontation with the Islamic republic and more because of how a nuclear umbrella would embolden the regime. The fear is that Iran would leverage its influence in the Persian Gulf, and in Syria and Lebanon.

Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon and the aggressor against Israel in last year’s war, would function more freely with a nuclear patron.

Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested that such anxieties might be premature, as Iran has yet to obtain the fissile material necessary to make a weapon and U.N. inspectors are capable of detecting its manufacture.

Clawson said that would change if Iran shifted into high gear and was capable of creating the uranium.

“That would become a very dangerous moment,” he said, “if we thought that Iran was producing high enriched uranium.”

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