Democrats Wage War Over Iran
There's an Iran war raging alright -- right here at home, on the Democratic presidential trail.
Two weeks ago, the Senate approved a non-binding resolution urging the Bush administration to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. The powerful and well-funded IRGC, an offshoot of the Iranian military, has been linked by the Pentagon to illegal Shiite militias in Iraq. The Senate vote was 76-22 -- a margin suggesting the resolution had not generated much controversy.
But the list of yeas and nays revealed an interesting split, and provided a rare opportunity for Every Democrat But Hillary to drive a wedge with the frontrunner.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) voted for the resolution, along with the entire Senate Democratic leadership. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) voted against it. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he would have voted no -- had the vote not been scheduled at the last minute, after he had left D.C. for the campaign trail.
At first the resolution drew little attention. It came up at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire later that night, when long-shot candidate Mike Gravel called it "essentially a fig leaf to let George Bush go to war with Iran." Gravel continued, "I am ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for it."
Clinton shot back, "I don't know where to start." Then she said the designation "gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders to try to begin to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran."
Biden, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, soft-pedaled his dissent, challenging not so much the measure's substance, but how President Bush could interpret it.
"Arguably, if we had a different president who abided by the meaning and intent of the laws we pass, I might support this amendment," Biden explained on the Senate floor. "I fear, however, that this president might use the designation...as a pretext to use force against Iran as he sees fit."
Written by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the resolution's final version was toned down considerably from the original text. In negotiations leading up to the vote, Senate Democratic leaders demanded that two paragraphs be deleted, interpreting it as a drumbeat for war.
But the 2002 Iraq authorization still echoes through the Senate chamber, and many Democrats remained wary about opening any more doors for Bush. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), an influential voice on military affairs, warned his colleagues, "This has the danger of becoming a de facto authorization for military force against Iran." Other opponents included GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the senior Republican on the foreign relations committee, and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), a leading Democratic war opponent.
But five Democrats who voted no on Iraq voted yes on Iran: Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.) -- Obama's home state colleague. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the co-author of a bill to cut off funding for the Iraq war, also backed the Iran measure. Spokesman Jim Manley said Reid wanted to "signal his concerns about objectionable behavior by the Iranian military."
Further complicating the debate, Obama and Dodd -- along with Clinton -- are among the 68 co-sponsors of a separate bill aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions. It also urges that the IRGC be designated a foreign terrorist organization.
But that's way too far in the weeds for a presidential race. Leaping at the chance to isolate Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards said in a PBS "NewsHour" interview Wednesday night, "I respect her view, but mine is very different. I think what worries me is, are we going to, six months from now, a year from now, if Bush invades Iran, are we going to hear once again, "If only I'd known then what I know now?"
Obama opened fire in an op-ed Thursday in the Manchester Union-Leader. "On the fifth anniversary of the Senate's vote to authorize an open-ended war in Iraq, we should resolve to never repeat the terrible mistake of launching a misguided war," he wrote. "But unfortunately, the Senate risked doing exactly that when it recently opened the door to an extension and escalation of the ongoing war in Iraq to include military action against Iran."
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer's retort: "If Senator Obama felt so strongly about this resolution, why didn't he speak out against it or vote against it?"
-- Shailagh Murray
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