Obama highlights differences on Iran


WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s the conventional wisdom: Save for dickering over health care mandates, Obama-Clinton has moved beyond issues and is now about experience vs. change, vision vs. get-it-done.

But that’s not the case for many pro-Israel activists, something U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made clear Tuesday night in his speech after he and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) about tied in the delegate count on Super Tuesday.

Obama congratulated Clinton in his remarks delivered to supporters at a Chicago hotel, and said he and his opponents were friends. He made sure, however, to note their differences.

Riding a wave of cheers, Obama said that if he is the Democratic standard-bearer in the general election, the Republican candidate will not be able to say “that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven’t, or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don’t like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach.”

Obama was referring to Clinton’s vote last year on an amendment that urged Bush to monitor the Iranian role in the Iraqi insurgency, and her rejection of Obama’s call to meet pariah leaders within a year of taking office.

Those remarks underscore differences that will set off alarms in some corners of the Jewish community, said Morris Amitay, the doyen of pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington.

“If you believe that Iran is a credible threat to Israel and also works against U.S. interests in the Middle East, then to say you’ll unconditionally say you’ll sit and talk with them only encourages them to continue on their present course,” Amitay said. “Clinton’s attitude is more realistic and sophisticated, and this does raise the question in how prepared Obama would be in handling national security issues.”

An Obama campaign official who asked not to be identified said that pro-Israel groups understood the full picture of Obama’s approach to Iran.

“I think he’s made a very clear statement many, many times in ways that have been well received by leaders about the unacceptability of Iran having nuclear weapons, making sure that they don’t, using aggressive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, multilaterally with other nations – to increase economic pressure on Iran, our own economic pressure,” the Obama official said. “Based on that full picture of his policy, the issues will not be sources of great difficulty.”

This official noted that exit polls found that among Jewish voters, Obama essentially registered a draw with Clinton outside of her New York-New Jersey stomping ground.

Still, parsing Obama’s statement, it becomes clear that there is a substantial difference on Iran policy.

Speaking of giving Bush the “benefit of the doubt on Iran,” Obama was referring to Clinton’s vote last year on a Senate amendment that argues for designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. The amendment was not binding, but Bush heeded it in any case.

Of Democratic senators in the presidential race at the time, only Clinton voted for it. Obama was not present.

Obama backs designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity. However, the amendment also refers to the Revolutionary Guard’s suspected involvement in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and opponents assert that it gives Bush a green light to attack Iran.

Clinton and others say they removed language that would have had that effect.

As passed, the amendment calls for a report on “any counter-strategy or efforts by the United States Government to counter the activities of agents of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iraq.”

That language, according to the Obama campaign official, “ties our military posture in Iraq to our need to confront Iranian influence” and hands Bush a pretext to keep troops in Iraq, something Democrats oppose.

However, other liberal Democrats backed the amendment, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), whom Obama thanked at the start of his speech Tuesday night.

The second issue raised by Obama in his speech is even more substantive, although his charge that Clinton supports “the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don’t like” has been widely criticized as a distortion.

Clinton says she would reach out to leaders of countries like Iran and Syria but unlike Obama, would not commit to doing so in her first year in office.

“Senator Clinton believes talking to countries ‘we don’t like’ is an essential part of diplomacy,” her campaign’s national security director, Lee Feinstein, told JTA. “She believes that the Bush administration’s refusal to talk to our adversaries has been very damaging to our security and our foreign policy. She supports diplomatic talks with Iran about its nuclear program, and the sooner the better.”

Feinstein said Clinton disagrees with Obama on the guarantee “to meet personally and without precondition during the first year in office with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.”

“As John Kennedy said when he was running for president against Richard Nixon, diplomacy requires careful preparation before conferring the legitimacy of a meeting with the president of the United States,” he said.

In her Super Tuesday speech, Clinton referred to her strategy, which emphasizes building bridges with allies.

“I see an America respected around the world again, that reaches out to our allies and confronts our shared challenges, from global terrorism to global warming to global epidemics,” she said at Manhattan Center Studios in New York.

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