A Difference on Iran?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

SEN. BARACK Obama argues that he has a significant difference with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Iran, an issue that may be more important for the next president than Iraq. In an op-ed, Mr. Obama condemned as "dangerous" and "reckless" a Senate resolution Ms. Clinton supported that urged the Bush administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. He said the resolution "opened the door to an extension and escalation of the ongoing war in Iraq to include military action against Iran." He also said the "first and most important avenue to contain Iranian aggression" should be "direct diplomacy" -- which he said Ms. Clinton had called "naive and irresponsible."

There are two important issues here: whether it is right for the United States to designate part or all of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, as the Bush administration is likely to do in the near future; and whether direct talks between Iran and the United States are worth pursuing. Ms. Clinton has been criticized by some on the left who contend that the terrorism designation would unncessarily raise tensions with Iran and increase the chances of war. But it turns out that Mr. Obama doesn't share this view: He, too, favors the "terrorist" designation. In fact the main point of such a step is to allow the United States to tighten economic sanctions against Iran -- a strategy that both candidates rightly favor.

Nor do Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton disagree very much about talks with Iran. Both say their administrations would open unconditional negotiations with Tehran about its nuclear program -- unlike the Bush administration, which has offered such talks but conditioned them on Iran's suspending its uranium enrichment. If there is a difference, it is that Mr. Obama once said -- unadvisedly -- that as president he would meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is a Holocaust denier and advocate of Israel's destruction but not Iran's most important leader. Rather than admit his mistake -- Ms. Clinton was right to call the remark "naive" if not "irresponsible" -- Mr. Obama has tried to make it appear that the criticism amounted to a dismissal of "direct diplomacy."

So is there any real difference between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton on Iran? Mr. Obama contends that one distinction lies in Ms. Clinton's acceptance of language in the Senate resolution that "it is a critical national interest of the United States" to stop Iran from creating a Hezbollah-like force in Iraq. Mr. Obama claims that such language is "saber-rattling" that could be used by the Bush administration to justify an attack on Iran. This is hard to fathom. Not only is there no mention of the use of U.S. force in the resolution, but last year Mr. Obama gave a speech in which he said it "is in our national interest to prevent" Iran or Syria from using Iraq as "a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries."

In fact the two leading Democratic candidates have advocated pretty much the same policy for Iran, just as they have for Iraq. In the case of Iran, the strategy is, for the most part, centrist and sensible and doesn't differ much from what the Bush administration is doing. Now, trailing in the polls and sensing a political opportunity, Mr. Obama is trying to portray Ms. Clinton as a reckless saber-rattler. That is irresponsible and -- given the ease with which the charge can be rebutted -- probably naive, as well.

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