By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007
In the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, Iran has become the new Iraq.
Iran is now the front line in a foreign policy debate that has found Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) defending a vote that her rivals said could embolden President Bush to once again launch unilateral military action against a Middle Eastern nation.
The discussion is almost identical to one that took place earlier in the campaign over Clinton's 2002 vote for the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq, except that, in this case, she finds herself on the opposite side of all her leading rivals for the nomination.
The focus on Iran highlights the extent to which national security remains the key fault line in the Democratic race as Clinton's opponents seek to slow her momentum. With the administration now preparing to designate a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and to impose sanctions on Iran, the debate is only likely to intensify.
Clinton has moved aggressively to contain any possible damage. Over the weekend, her campaign flooded Iowa -- the most competitive state in the Democratic contest -- with a mailer that included a lengthy letter from the candidate explaining why she supported a Senate measure urging the administration to label the IRGC a terrorist organization.
The flier, which came two weeks after a testy public exchange over the issue between Clinton and an Iowa voter, also contained a rebuttal of statements by critics of the amendment. That rebuttal came from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who voted the same way Clinton did on the measure and who also happens to be one of the leading supporters of a rival, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
Obama, who opposed the measure but was absent on the day of the vote, has been among Clinton's harshest critics. He followed her foray into the mailboxes of Iowa Democrats with a flier of his own challenging her judgment and telling voters that he is the only leading candidate who opposed both the Iraq war and the Iran amendment.
But Obama's critics, including some of his rivals, contend that the Illinois senator is on shaky ground because, earlier, he joined Clinton in support of a pending measure that would also label the IRGC a terrorist organization.
Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) has been even more relentless. He attacked Clinton hours after the vote and has not let up on his criticism since. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who voted against the measure, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have eagerly joined in the attacks.
Edwards, who, like Clinton, supported the 2002 Iraq war resolution, said she failed to learn a lesson from that episode. "I think it's an enormous mistake to give George Bush the first step in the authority to move militarily on Iran," Edwards said in a telephone interview from Iowa yesterday. "My view is that the resolution on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard did that."
Biden, in a session with Washington Post editors and reporters yesterday, said labeling the IRGC as a terrorist group was a "serious, serious mistake" because it could force the United States to back up the designation with action. "Big nations can't bluff," he said.
Clinton has been steadfast in her contention that the amendment to the defense authorization bill was not a vote for war but, instead, a call for robust diplomatic action to deal with Iran. "I oppose any rush to war but also believe doing nothing is not acceptable -- diplomacy is the right path," she said in her campaign mailer.
Iran sprang up as a campaign issue on Sept. 26, when the Senate voted 76 to 22 for a defense authorization bill amendment sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). The amendment not only urged the administration to label the IRGC a terrorist organization but also said that the U.S. military presence in Iraq could have a critical impact on Iran's ability to pose a threat to the entire Middle East.
Twenty-eight other Democrats supported the amendment, including eight who voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), a fervent critic of Bush's Iraq policies. Only two Republicans opposed it, Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), a frequent foreign policy critic of the White House.
In her defense, Clinton has made several points. First, that she has long been on the record opposing the use of military force against Iran and has been a co-sponsor of legislation, with Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), explicitly saying that Bush lacks the authority to use force against Iran.
Webb, however, voted against the Iran amendment, saying that it was enough to allow the administration to use force against Iran. "I think everybody knew what that vote was about," Webb said on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."
Durbin, who opposed the Iraq war resolution in 2002, took the opposite view in explaining why he supported the measure. "I don't think this resolution gives them a green light to do anything," he told Bloomberg Television, referring to the administration.
Clinton also said that she supported the measure only after she and other Democrats had persuaded Republicans to remove more belligerent language toward Iran.
Obama's opposition is unique among the Democratic candidates because he is on record supporting the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization. His opposition, said an adviser, is based on other sections of the measure that use Iran to justify the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and that say it is in the national interest for the U.S. military to counter Iran in Iraq. The adviser said the amendment is worrisome because there is no stipulation noting that nothing in it authorizes military action.
One Clinton adviser called Obama's position "contrived." Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said: "There is nothing in the bill that gives George Bush any additional authority to wage war in Iran; and if Senator Obama believed that it did, he should have spoken out against it, fought against it and voted against it."
But it is Clinton who remains on the defensive. Her advisers said they have not seen erosion in her support in Iowa but moved preemptively with the mailer nonetheless. Her Democratic rivals think she took action because the issue was already causing her problems.
Whichever view is correct, Clinton's actions have elevated Iran even more as an issue in the Democratic campaign and demonstrated anew her possible vulnerabilities among dovish Democrats on national security issues.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.