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September 23, 2008

Hiatt Misses the Point on Iran - Again
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

The Washington Post has a terrible editorial today on Iran claiming that somehow both Barack Obama and John McCain have the same policy on Iran and that both are following the same path as the President.  I know it's fashionable during election season for high minded types to paper over clear differences and claim that all the candidates have the same policy, but in the case of Iran nothing could be further from the truth.  The Post writes:

The next major initiative to stop an Iranian bomb will probably be a new effort by the next U.S. president to launch negotiations; Barack Obama has made it a centerpiece of his policy, and John McCain has said he's willing to support talks as well. Both also say they will work to stiffen sanctions. That, of course, is the strategy the United States and European governments have already been pursuing for several years -- without success. Why do the candidates believe they will succeed where the Bush administration has failed? That would be a good topic for Friday's foreign policy debate.

First of all, McCain has specifically criticized Obama for willing to have diplomatic talks.  So how can the Post simply say that McCain and Obama would both hold talks with the Iranians and dismiss them as having the same position.  McCain has run ads against Obama on this point. 

Second, McCain has continued the intensive saber rattling towards Iran that has been a hallmark of the Bush administration and gets in the way of any real talks. 

Third, while both Obama and McCain have argued for tougher sanctions only Obama's plan has a chance of succeeding.  McCain has pushed for tougher sanctions but refuses any diplomatic engagement.  So, the rest of the world continues to perceive that the U.S. is not engaging in genuine diplomacy and will refuse to take the next step on sanctions.  If on the other hand we engage it might work, which would be great.  If engagement fails and the Iranians continue to be seen as playing games and being obstinate then we are much more likely to gain the support of at least our European allies, if not the UNSC, for tougher sanctions to put greater pressure on the Iranian regime.  Even the Bush administration has started to recognize the need for more direct talks, which is why it sent Ambassador Bill Burns to Vienna in July as part of delegation with our allies to present the Iranians with a proposal to move discussions along the nuclear issue. 

In the end McCain's policy is basically a continuation of the old Bush policy.  No talks and futile attempts to gain support for tougher sanctions.  Obama's policy offers a genuine break and new opportunities. 


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Actually, first of all, there is no "Iranian bomb" or even any evidence that IRan is making a bomb.

Good post. McCain's saber-rattling is less significant than his hyper-sanctions rhetoric. Obama has committed himself to unconditional talks with Iran's leadership in hopes to offer incentives to change Iranian policy. McCain has promised greater penalties for non-compliance.

I think Obama plan has a better shot, but in part because he has committed to an orderly withdrawal of US forces from Iraq: this assuages Tehran's security concerns (not too fast, not too slow) and effectively de-links Iraq from the Iranian nuclear program.

Obama's approach may delay the confrontation that McCain's approach would seem to bring sooner, if diplomacy fails. But neither candidate, and nobody above the line here, has discussed what to do if diplomacy fails and Europe, Russia, and China refuse to sign onto economic sanctions, or if they do and the sanctions fail. Normally I would say let's not get ahead of ourselves, but in this situation I worry that by the time circumstances require discussion of these things it may be too late.

It may not be possible to isolate the Middle East for purposes of arms control from the larger question of how to control weaponizable nuclear technology in the world as a whole. This larger question is really the debate we need to have; a focus on the Middle East is ad hoc and I don't think it will really solve the problem in the long run.

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