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In the lead-up to the Presidential Election this November, media coverage around the world has been unprecedented.  Often - though not always - the trivial trumps the actual policy debate. In the context of this information overload, GMF will be tracking "What Europe Needs to Know".


Debate Tracker: Trade The Debate Background Information Candidates' Views Read More

The Debate
Five former U.S. state secretaries urge Iran talks
Reuters, September 16
Candidates Diverge on How to Handle Iran
Mike Shuster, NPR, July 10
Iran's Missile Launch Provides Test for Obama, McCain
PBS Interview with Campaign Advisors, July 10, 2008
U.S. Candidates Use Iran’s Missile Tests as a Chance for a Foreign Policy Debate
Michael Cooper, The New York Times, July 10
Dealing with Iran: The case for talking
James Dobbins, IHT, June 30

Talking to Iran Is Our Best Option
Ivo Daalder and Philip Gordon, Washington Post, June 29

Background Information

How to deal with Iran has been one of the most intensely discussed foreign policy elements in the current U.S. presidential campaign. While the Iranian government maintains its position that it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and denies any intention to build a nuclear arsenal, experts in the U.S. and Europe question Tehran's true intentions. Both presidential candidates have expressed concern over the regime's anti-Israeli rhetoric, Iran's role in Iraq, and the regime's alleged support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Following two failed rounds of UN economic sanctions, a series of military excersises in the region, Iran continues to be an issue that will shape each candidate’s foreign policy approach. 

After the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was released in late 2007, concluding the country’s nuclear weapons program was halted in the fall of 2003, the candidates were forced to put forth clear policy ideas for handling Iran.  Senator Obama has called for direct talks with the Iranian regime; an option Senator McCain declared before AIPAC to be ineffective.  Obama insists he will leave the military option on the table but believes foremost in diplomatic efforts, ready to meet with leaders from Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea during the first year of his presidency.  Senator McCain proposes stiffer sanctions if Iran fails to yield to international appeals concerning its nuclear program.  McCain also says military force is an option, but he would consult with congressional leaders before taking action.

New missile testing in early July threw Iran even further into the forefront of the foreign policy debate.  Staking out their positions, both candidates pointed to sanctions as a way to pressure the country’s government.  McCain insisted that the reported tests prove Iran is a threat to the surrounding region and missile shields would be a worthwhile preventive measure.  Obama continued to highlight his plans to open direct diplomacy with Iran following the reports of missile testing. 

The Candidates' Views

John McCain (R)

www.time.comIn a speech at CPAC in February 2008, Senator McCain expressed his commitment “to make unmistakably clear to Iran we will not permit a government that espouses the destruction of the State of Israel as its fondest wish and pledges undying enmity to the United States to possess the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions.” McCain’s approach to Iran is wedded with his broad foreign policy plan for stability in the Middle East, which he hopes to achieve by “staying on offense and by marshaling every relevant agency of our government, and our allies, in the urgent necessity of defending the values, virtues and security of free people against those who despise all that is good about us.”  Senator McCain has criticized of Senator Obama’s and Senator Clinton’s approach to Iran, stating: “they won’t recognize and seriously address the threat posed by an Iran with nuclear ambitions to our ally, Israel, and the region.”  This criticism is coupled with McCain’s argument that decades of foreign policy experience make him the natural choice to lead a country at war with terrorists and fulfill a need to build the international structures for a durable peace in which the radical extremists are gradually eclipsed by the more powerful forces of freedom and tolerance”.  In a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March 2008, McCain stated: “The United States and the international community must work together and do all in our power to….prevent Iran — a nation whose President has repeatedly expressed a desire to wipe Israel from the face of the earth — from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

McCain drew criticism for joking about bombing Iran at a campaign stop in April 2007, and in July 2008 his comment about killing Iranians with exported American cigarettes was unfavorably received. 

Reacting to Iranian missile testing in July, Senator McCain said that the reports confirm the need for an effective missile defense system.  He argued that, "ballistic missile testing coupled with Iran's continued refusal to cease its nuclear activities should unite the international community in efforts to counter Iran's dangerous ambitions…Iran's missile tests also demonstrate the need for effective missile defense now and in the future, and this includes missile defense in Europe as is planned with the Czech Republic and Poland."  Randy Scheunemann,  McCain Campaign Adviser, stated: Well, I think the first thing he would do is sit down with our European allies that have been working very hard in multilateral diplomacy and talk about how to increase the sanctions, very serious sanctions -- financial, diplomatic and political -- on Iran.

Barack Obama (D)www.time.com

In a speech at AIPAC in March 2007, Senator Obama stated: “The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy. And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons….we need the United States to lead tough-minded diplomacy….It would mean harnessing the collective power of our friends in Europe who are Iran’s major trading partners….” 

Early in the election process, Senator Obama claimed that in the Middle East and Iraq, we have to engage neighboring countries in finding a solution….that includes opening dialogue both Syria and Iran.”  His willingness to talk with leaders from these “rogue” nations has garnered substantial criticism from Senator McCain and neoconservatives.  Senator Obama defended his preparedness to talk with Iranian leadership in a more recent speech at the AIPAC on June 4, stating: “I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking.  But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at the time and place of my choosing – if and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States.”  He argues that “willingness to pursue diplomacy will make it easier to mobilize others to join our cause…we should work with Europe, Japan and Gulf states to find every avenue outside the U.N. to isolate the Iranian regime…”  Senator Obama maintains that “the surest way to increase our leverage in the long term is to stop bankrolling the Iranian regime.”  

In May 2007, Obama sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would authorize state and local governments to divest form Iran’s petroleum sector, however the bill never reached a vote.  Obama opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which calls on the United States to combat, contain, and roll back Iranian violence inside Iraq, but was absent during its 72-22 Senate approval in September 2007.  Obama claimed that “it was reckless for Congress to give George Bush any justification to extend the Iraq War or to attack Iran.”  Obama has praised the UN Security Council’s resolution to increase international pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, yet indicated that “this resolution represents a lowest common denominator because Russia and China did not agree to tougher sanctions.”  While his rhetoric on Iran is largely centered on engaged diplomacy and suspended force, a position hardened after the NIE release, Senator Obama firmly declares that he “will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. 

Iran’s summer missile testing brought both candidates’ foreign policies under strong scrutiny.  Senator Obama came straight out of the gate with a call for more “aggressive diplomacy” stating that "now is the time to work with our friends and allies, and to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with the Iranian regime backed by tougher unilateral and multilateral sanctions." In another statement, he declared “there’s no doubt we’re seeing rising tensions in the area, and it’s part of the reason why it’s so important for us to have a coherent policy with respect to Iran. It has to combine much tougher threats of economic sanctions with direct diplomacy, opening up channels of communication so that we avoid provocation but we give strong incentives for the Iranians to change their behavior.”  In an interview, Obama’s advisor and former Secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig, maintained that “the first thing we ought to do is condemn this Iranian test. It inflames the region and is a bad thing. And we definitely need to consult with our European allies and increase sanctions… But there also is utility from opening up other lines of communication between the United States and Iran, just as we've had other lines of communication, for example, with North Korea and with Libya and moved them away from positions that are very bad.

Read More
. McCain Calls for Sanctions on Iran 
Susan Davis, Wall Street Journal, July 10
. Obama wants Iran talks, McCain missile shield
MSNBC, July 9
.McCain, Obama Stake Out Differences on Iranian Missile Tests
Fox News & AP, July 9
. Nuclear Iran is world's biggest threat: Obama advisor
AFP, July 1
. Talking to Iran Is Not So Controversial
Ilan Goldenberg, The American Prospect, June 25

Additional Resources

CNN election centre 2008 Issues: Iran

Council on Foreign Relations Issue Tracker on Iran


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