By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007
When President Bush this week raised the specter of World War III if Iran manages to build nuclear weapons, he not only roiled the diplomatic world, he also underscored how much Iran has come to shadow the political dialogue both here in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail.
While Iraq has faded from the Beltway debate for now, Iran has emerged as the top foreign policy topic of the moment. Democratic candidates are arguing about Bush's efforts against Iran, with underdogs accusing front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton of giving the president a blank check. Republican candidates, on the other hand, are vying over who would be toughest on Iran, with each vowing to take military action if necessary.
Bush's comments at his Wednesday news conference only fueled the discussion and may have also signaled a shift in his personal redline in Tehran's progress toward a nuclear weapon. With most attention focused on the doomsday scenario he invoked, another part of his answer may be telling. Although in the past he has said it is "unacceptable" for Iran to possess a nuclear bomb, Bush said Wednesday that it is unacceptable for it to even know how to build a bomb.
The talk of military options has led to sometimes feverish speculation that a strike may be imminent, a notion dismissed by administration officials who say that Bush is committed to diplomacy at this point. But with 15 months left in office, Bush may eventually confront the choice of dealing with Iran's program or passing the problem onto a successor.
For now, the White House spent yesterday trying to douse the flames of Bush's news conference remark. "If you're interested in avoiding World War III," he said, "it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that was "a rhetorical point," not a threat. "The president was not making any war plans, and he wasn't making any declarations," she said. "He was making a point, and the point is that we do not believe . . . Iran should be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Bush meant that a nuclear Iran would provoke its neighbors. "You very likely would have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," he said, which would increase "the risk of an accident or a miscalculation or of those weapons or materials falling into the hands of terrorists."
Bush's comments drew a sharp statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which condemned his "warlike rhetoric," the Associated Press reported. "This sort of policy will jeopardize peace and security at the international level," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini.
Some Democrats criticized Bush for an alarmist tone. "He continues to dial up the fear factor instead of reaching to bring this world together, to work together, to make sure that we can avoid World War III or any other war, for that matter, and end the war we're in that we can't get out of," Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) said on MSNBC.
Yet analysts said the rhetoric disguises the fact that Democrats and Republicans generally agree on Iran while emphasizing different parts of the strategy. For the most part, leaders in both parties advocate diplomacy and sanctions to pressure Tehran and generally do not rule out the use of force should it be necessary. "There's some degree of consensus," said Ray Takeyh, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I don't think anybody's looking forward to expanding the zone of conflict in the Middle East."
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute said the debate overemphasizes the worst-case options. "Iran getting nuclear weapons would be like dying of cancer," he said. "Military strikes would be like dying of a heart attack." An attack on Iran might not even stop its nuclear program, he said, but "it would upset the world, it would bog us down, it would drive up the price of oil."
Some suggest that the United States may have to accept that it cannot stop Iran. "There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," retired Gen. John Abizaid, former chief of U.S. Central Command, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month. "Let's face it: We lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China and we're living with [other] nuclear powers, as well."
The leading Republican candidates rejected this scenario, using speeches to the Republican Jewish Coalition this week to rule out a nuclear Iran. "We've seen what Iran will do with ordinary weapons," said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and GOP front-runner. "If I am president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons."
Other candidates also rattled sabers. "The U.S. must make it clear we will not allow Iran to become a nuclear threat," said former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.). "The military must never be off the table." Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said: "Iran has to understand that not only is the military option on the table, it is in our hand" and the next president must make clear that "this is not just some far-flung idea . . . but instead we are poised and ready to act."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who once jokingly sang "Bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," agreed but held out hope it will not come to that. "I keep praying every night that we will avoid a conflict with Iran," he told the Associated Press. "I don't think it's inevitable that we're in a conflict with Iran. But I certainly see it as one scenario that could -- and I emphasize could -- take place if we are not effective" using diplomacy and sanctions.
The Democratic debate has come from the other direction. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) have criticized Clinton for voting for a resolution labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, arguing that such a designation empowers Bush and could lead to war.
Still, Bush's threshold remains uncertain as he tries to rally international pressure on Iran. Some saw his declaration as meaning that even "knowledge" of nuclear bomb-making would be unacceptable. "They have just redefined the nature of the problem," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council official under Bush who is now at the New American Foundation.
Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that would be reading too much into the president's words. "There's been no change in the policy; that's just another way of saying we don't want them to develop nuclear weapons."