Although Iraq and the economy tend to dominate the headlines, Iran is never far from the news cycle – or from the speeches of the leading U.S. presidential candidates. In a recent trip to the Middle East, John McCain reiterated his concern about “Iranian influence and assistance to Hezbollah as well as Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Iran also received the attention of President Bush when he insisted last month that Iran is developing nuclear weapons in order to “destroy people.” Implausible and unsubstantiated as this claim might be, it represents a popular thread of argument in the Iran debate.

But Iran figures in other ways in the 2008 presidential election. It is not only a matter of war and peace. The candidates’ approach to Iran reveals what U.S. engagement with the Middle East might look like in the years to come.

Similarity of Approach

Although there are significant differences between the presidential contenders, they all share certain concerns and assumptions about Iran. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain have all openly stated that Iran cannot, under any circumstances, be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons. To that end, each candidate maintains that the military option, though not preferred, remains “on the table.”

This unity is the result of a fundamental mistrust the candidates share toward the Iranian regime. For Obama, Iran is a “radical theocracy” that sponsors terrorism and “regional aggression.” According to John McCain’s website, Iran is a “dictatorship” that has “aided and abetted the violence in Iraq” and trained “the most violent Shia militias.” Hillary Clinton is largely in agreement with these statements, arguing that “Iran poses a long-term strategic challenge to the United States, our NATO allies, and Israel.” Consequently, Iran is not to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Beyond this shared stance on Iran’s nuclear program, the three candidates also succumb to a certain sin of omission. None of them has acknowledged Iran’s legitimate security interests. While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum agree that Iran is guilty of bad behavior, many have also pointed out that Iran faces serious national security threats of its own. The United States, which has threatened to overthrow Iran’s government, has 160,000 troops in neighboring Iraq and is part of a 40,000-troop NATO force in neighboring Afghanistan. Iran shares a border with American ally Turkey, and the U.S. Navy is present in force in the Persian Gulf. In short, Iran is boxed in by a massively stronger power that has repeatedly threatened it. Furthermore, Iran also feels threatened by Israeli nuclear weapons, for which it has no effective defense.

By not publicly recognizing these issues, Obama, Clinton, and McCain fail to provide a solid explanation for Iranian behavior. How does one distinguish deterrence or self-defense from “Islamofascism” or a bid for regional hegemony? Since sponsorship of terrorism or the pursuit of nuclear weapons could be used for either hegemony or deterrence, Iran’s motivations are notoriously difficult to read. Nevertheless, a president must make those tough calls. The use or non-use of military force will rely on how the president understands Iran’s motives and actions. The candidates have failed to publicly demonstrate such an understanding.

Important Differences

In spite of these similarities, the differences between Obama, Clinton, and McCain can help us determine how willing and able each candidate will be to pursue a diplomatic course before opting for military action. Of the three, Obama is the most committed to a negotiated settlement with Iran. He has unequivocally stated that he would engage the Iranian regime “without preconditions,” offering a pledge not to invade and possible membership for Iran in the World Trade Organization. Since Iran will not stop enriching uranium as a prerequisite to talks, this is the only way to engage Iran on the nuclear issue. Obama also stands out because he, unlike Clinton and McCain, is more circumspect on whether he believes Iran actually intends to build nuclear weapons.

For example, in the latter half of 2007 each candidate published an essay on foreign policy in Foreign Affairs magazine. While McCain and Clinton openly charge that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, Obama does not. He recognizes that Iran is enriching uranium and he is clear about his opposition to an Iranian bomb, but in very careful language he avoids saying that Iran wants nuclear weapons. On his website, Obama claims that Iran “has sought” nuclear weapons – notice the past tense – but doesn’t say that Iran is currently doing so.

Obama’s discretion on the nuclear weapons issue may indicate that he recognizes more nuance in Iran’s motivation and actions than he lets on. While he, like Clinton and McCain, has not publicly acknowledged the security threats facing Iran, at least one of his advisors has. Joe Cirincione, an Obama foreign policy advisor with expertise in nuclear weapons policy and national security, has articulated an understanding of the threat environment facing Iran and how nuclear weapons could undermine Iranian security. Although ignored by the mainstream media, this line of argument is of monumental importance.

With 70 million people, vast oil wealth, and a mountainous topography, Iran does not face any serious military threat from countries in the region (unless they are supported by the U.S. military). However, other countries in the region could develop nuclear weapons if Iran obtains them first. Since no amount of conventional strength could protect Iran from a neighboring nuclear bomb, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran could actually decrease Iran’s security. A president who does not understand the relationship between Iran’s security challenges and its nuclear program will have a difficult time engaging the Iranian regime in productive negotiations. By keeping advisors like Cirincione on hand and not assuming that Iran ultimately desires nuclear weapons, Obama shows that he might have that understanding after all, public rhetoric notwithstanding.

For all of Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama regarding his supposed naïveté in foreign affairs, she has a remarkably similar position. In 2007 she said that “I would engage in negotiations with Iran, with no conditions, because we don’t really understand how Iran works.” She also believes that Iran might respond to a “carefully calibrated package of incentives.” In a speech made from the Senate floor in February 2007, Clinton declared that the president cannot take military action against Iran without congressional authorization. However, several months later she voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that designated the Revolutionary Guard of Iran as a terrorist organization. Clinton immediately found herself under fire from Senate colleagues Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama, as well as others who worried that the amendment would allow the White House to claim authority to attack Iran.

Such episodes, in addition to her authorization of the Iraq war, show that Hillary Clinton has a history of acting tough or making war without a consideration of the consequences. Particularly troubling about the juxtaposition of this approach with her willingness to pursue diplomatic means is that the difference between Clinton the dove and Clinton the hawk seems to be largely contingent on the latest opinion polls. When it was politically expedient for her to support the Iraq war and Kyl-Lieberman, she did so. When the war in Iraq became unpopular, she became an opponent of the war. Similarly, when the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, she moderated her Iran rhetoric, largely by ceasing to talk about the country.

One of Clinton’s closest foreign policy advisors, Richard Holbrooke, has shown a similar tendency. An advocate of regime change in Iraq, Holbrooke has also compared Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, claiming that Iran is “an enormous threat to the United States, the stability in the region, and to the state of Israel.” Then, after the NIE, Holbrooke wrote in the Huffington Post that he had consistently opposed military action against Iran, even before the NIE. Still, in 2008 he has continued to argue that all options must remain “on the table.” Prudence may dictate that there is a time for diplomacy and a time for military action, but public opinion is not always the best way to decide between the two. In fact, it may not be a guide at all considering how much the presidential bully pulpit influences public opinion in matters of foreign policy. Unfortunately, Clinton’s past on Iran leaves it impossible to know when military action would take a back seat to diplomacy and vice versa.

The differences between Obama and Clinton are dwarfed by the gap between the Democratic and Republican positions on Iran. John McCain proposes isolation only, with no call for providing Iran incentives to change its behavior. If sanctions and isolation do not work, he is willing to act militarily. With the price of oil hovering around $100 a barrel, the United States bogged down in Iraq, and China and Russia reluctant to punish Iran for uranium enrichment, Iran will feel confident that it can weather whatever storm of sanctions the United States might put together. In this scenario, if he stays true to his word, the military option will be the only choice John McCain has left.

October Surprise?

Iran will continue to be an important foreign policy theme in the 2008 election. Nevertheless, it is likely to be overshadowed by the economy and Iraq. The U.S. public is accustomed to hearing bad things about Iran, so unless something out of the ordinary occurs – such as a military strike authorized by the Bush administration – it is hard to imagine Iran trumping voters’ concerns over Iraq and possible recession.

In the event that an Iranian October surprise does take place, it is difficult to predict how it would affect the election. If there is overt aggression on Iran’s part, the tough-talking John McCain will almost certainly benefit. However, an unprovoked attack on Iran might discredit Republican militarism, thereby giving the Democratic candidate a boost. What remains certain, though, is that Iran awaits the next American president. And while the identity of that person is not yet clear, the policy choices Americans will have to choose from are.

Frankie Sturm, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (, is a free-lance writer based on Washington, DC. His pieces on American politics and foreign affairs have appeared in the Peoria Journal Star, the Topeka Capital-Journal, and

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