On Campaign Trail, No Longer On Guard Against Iran?
At campaign headquarters across the nation, one can only imagine foreign policy advisers yesterday were busily ripping out the chapter on Iran from their candidate playbooks. The surprise intelligence community turnabout on Tehran's supposed nuclear threat upended one of the fundamental assumptions about the 2008 presidential election on both sides of the aisle -- namely the belief that Iran perhaps even more than Iraq would be the dominant foreign policy issue of the year.
The issue had already to some degree overtaken Iraq in recent months as the most divisive foreign policy question on the Democratic side, where Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) have been assailing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for voting for a bipartisan non-binding resolution labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. At the Democratic debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, the candidates mentioned the word Iran 69 times, compared to 44 for Iraq. With the security situation in Iraq improving, Iran was turning into the next test for how Democrats would take on President Bush.
On the Republican side, candidates have been jockeying to appear toughest on Iran -- even tougher than Bush. During a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition not long ago, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said it was "absolutely necessary" to keep military force on the table, former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) said he would "not allow Iran to become a nuclear threat," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said a military strike was not "some far-flung idea" and in fact "we are poised and ready to act." Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) echoed those remarks, but not as bluntly as he did earlier in the year when he jokingly responded to a question about what to do about Iran by singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann."
Now suddenly the issue has been transformed. The declassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate released yesterday concluded that despite dire assessments by the Bush administration, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it. While Iran continues to develop its uranium enrichment program for civilian use, the intelligence community cast doubt on its ambitions for nuclear weapons at this point. And in an interesting section where the intelligence analysts seem to drift into policy advice, the NIE all but said that diplomacy was more effective with Tehran than previously recognized.
The new conclusions electrified Washington, where it once again raised the question of what policymakers can trust when it comes to intelligence about threats from abroad. But the immediate reaction on the campaign trail was relatively muted as candidates tried to digest the ramifications of the report. The Republican side was particularly silent -- Romney, Thompson and McCain issued no statements on the matter yesterday and spokesmen did not respond to e-mails requesting comment. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the newly minted first-tier candidate in Iowa, likewise had nothing to say.
Only Giuliani responded to the development, although his statement made no mention of the salient fact that Iran's nuclear weapons program evidently closed down four years ago, focusing instead on its continued enrichment program. "For years now, the Islamic Republic of Iran has defied and played games with every international effort aimed at persuading the country to halt enriching uranium," Giuliani said. "Sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way."
Democratic candidates predictably enough used the report to bash Bush for trying to rush the country into another war, but they also took the opportunity to jab each other. Edwards and Obama both targeted Clinton, although neither used her name. "This is exactly the reason that we must avoid radical steps like the Kyl-Lieberman bill declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which needlessly took us closer to war," Edwards said, referring to the resolution sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). The resolution, which has no force, passed in September by a 76 to 22 vote, with most Democratic senators voting yes along with Clinton. Obama was absent.
Obama, in his statement, harkened back to the 2002 vote to authorize use of force against Iraq, which Clinton voted for and which he spoke against at the time from outside the Senate. The new Iran intelligence estimate, Obama said, "serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the president any justification to use military force." That was a clear dig at Clinton, who was briefed on the intelligence before the Iraq vote but did not read the full NIE.
Clinton ignored Edwards, but fired back at Obama, who threatens to beat her in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, according to the latest polls. The Iran assessment, her campaign asserted, "vindicates" her approach to Iran, which it described as a middle road between Bush's bellicosity and Obama's naivete. "Neither saber rattling nor unconditional meetings with Ahmadinejad will stop Iran's nuclear ambitions," Lee Feinstein, the campaign's national security director,
Under the new paradigm created by the latest intelligence report, Iran may remain an important issue in the campaign, but it looks less like a defining one. If Iran is not even currently seeking nuclear weapons, the prospect of preemptive military action would seem to dissipate and with it the power of the issue in both parties. But if Iran continues to pursue uranium enrichment, it could be one of those issues that ultimately confronts the next president down the road.
-- Peter Baker
Washington Post editors
December 4, 2007; 9:25 AM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet
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