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The Candidates on Iran

September 30, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

The Bush administration has argued for years that Iran is working feverishly to advance its uranium-enrichment program (al-Jazeera). Two rounds of UN economic sanctions failed to halt Iran's program, and ominous warnings of a showdown formed the basis for early policy pronouncements by U.S. presidential candidates. Left-leaning Democrats questioned intelligence estimates and warned against a rush to war; right-leaning Republicans spoke of the threat of nuclear terrorism and a willingness to use military force to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear-weapons status. Centrists in both parties urged patience with the diplomatic track, even as they joined virtually all their cohorts in pledging to defend Israel against any nuclear blackmail.

On December 3, 2007, however, a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate was released suggesting Iran had, indeed, suspended its weapons program back in 2003. This brought new divisions among presidential candidates, with some fearing a new intelligence fiasco akin to that which preceeded the Iraq War, others claiming a victory for diplomacy, and others criticizing the Bush administration for backpeddling on the issue. Tehran has steadfastly denied the intention to build a nuclear weapons and asserts its right to a peaceful nuclear program. But its support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, involvement with militias in Iraq, the anti-Israeli rhetoric of its president, and memories of the 1979 hostage crisis, make it a hard issue for frontrunning candidates.

Democratic Ticket on Iran

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has expressed support for "opening dialogue" with Iran, in part to ask for its assistance in "playing a more constructive role in Iraq." He says the war in Iraq has strengthened Iran's influence in the region. He has also said Iran's nuclear ambitions represent a "serious threat to the United States, to our ally Israel and to international security." A nuclear Iran would be "a game changer," he said in a September 2008 presidential debate. "Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in this Middle East."

Obama said in a March 2007 speech before AIPAC that he supports "tough sanctions" on Iran to compel it to stop its uranium enrichment program. In the same speech, he said that he "does not believe that the use of military force towards Iran should be ruled out (Chicago Sun-Times). Still, in an April 2007 presidential debate, Obama said, "I think it would be a profound mistake (NYT) for us to initiate a war with Iran." Obama hardened his position on this point following the NIE release. During a debate in Iowa in December 2007, Obama accused President Bush of not letting "facts get in the way of his ideology" in dealing with Iran, and said the Bush administration's saber-rattling and threats of war "should have never started" (NPR).

Obama has repeatedly said he will engage Iran in "tough, direct presidential diplomacy" without preconditions. "I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe," he said in September 2008. In a February 2008 Democratic debate, Obama said it is "important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies," including Iran. This would not necessarily mean direct talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who Obama says "is not the most powerful person in Iran" and therefore "may not be the right person to talk to." Obama has also said the United States should consider offering the incentive of World Trade Organization membership for Iran if it abandons its nuclear program.

In March 2008, Obama praised the UN Security Council's resolution to up pressure on Iran for its nuclear program. Still, Obama said, the resolution "represents a lowest common denominator because Russia and China did not agree to tougher sanctions."

In May 2007, Obama sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would authorize state and local governments to divest from Iran's petroleum sector, protecting fund managers who divest from lawsuits. That bill has not reached a vote.

Obama did not vote on the September 2007 legislation labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, but he criticized the bill and said he would have voted against it. Still, in a September 2008 presidential debate, Obama said he does believe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is a terrorist organization.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Biden (D-DE) has been a prominent voice calling for "hard-headed diplomacy" with Iran. In July 2008, Biden should first engage directly with Iran in the context of talks with the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and "ultimately country-to-country, just as we did with North Korea." He also has called for the implementation of "coordinated international sanctions" on Iran, adding "we should complement this pressure by presenting a detailed, positive vision for U.S.-Iran relations if Iran does the right thing."

Biden has spoken out forcefully about a possible war with Iran. "War with Iran is not just a bad option. It would be a disaster," he wrote in December 2007. Biden has threatened to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Bush if he starts a war with Iran without Congressional approval.

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Republican Ticket on Iran

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) says Iran is the "chief state sponsor of terrorism," and has repeatedly said that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an "unacceptable risk" to regional and global stability. His refrain: "There is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran." In a February 2008 speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, McCain said he would send a message to Iran that the United States "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 drew criticism for joking about bombing Iran (CNN) at an April 2007 campaign stop. He has generally said that use of military force in Iran should be "the last option (PDF) but cannot be taken off the table."

Although McCain did not vote on the September 2007 Kyl-Lieberman amendment naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, he has expressed support for the bill, and has defended it against critics who say it could be used as a justification for attacking Iran.

McCain says the U.S. president should not negotiate directly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such a meeting "would increase the prestige of an implacable foe of the United States, and reinforce his confidence that Iran's dedication to acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting terrorists and destroying the State of Israel had succeeded in winning concessions from the most powerful nation on earth," McCain said in May 2008. In a September 2008 presidential debate, McCain indicated that he would support "secretary-level and lower level meetings" between the United States and Iran.

McCain has also called for a "worldwide divestment campaign" against Iran. In a June 2008 speech before the AIPAC Policy Conference, McCain said such a campaign could cause Iran's "radical elite" to become "even more unpopular than they are already."

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin says a nuclear Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s leadership would be “extremely dangerous to everyone on this globe.” In a September 2008 interview with ABC News, Palin said she thinks the United States and its allies should put “diplomatic pressure” on Iran to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. She said the United States should “pursue” and “implement” sanctions on Iran. “We cannot back off,” she said. Asked how she thinks the United States should respond if Israel were to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Palin said the United States “cannot second guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself.” Palin says she does not believe the United States should negotiate directly with Ahmadinejad without preconditions.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Iran

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Clinton has offered a balance of revived diplomatic efforts with Iran as well as tough talk on the consequences of Iran's pursuing a weapons program. Clinton said that if she was elected, she would have immediately opened "a diplomatic track" with Iran, and says "no option can be taken off the table" with regard to U.S. policy toward Iran. "We need to use every tool (AP) at our disposal, including diplomatic and economic in addition to the threat and use of military force," she said at a February 2007 dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In September 2007, Clinton came under fire from some of her Democratic counterparts for her vote in favor of a resolution labeling the Iran Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

In October 2007, Clinton cosponsored a bill prohibiting the use of funds for military action in Iran without "explicit Congressional authorization." That bill has not yet been voted on. But criticism of her Iran stance intensified after the December 3, 2007 release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iran appeared to have halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Clinton said during a subsequent debate that she continues to support vigorous diplomacy with Iran and defended her vote against the Revolutionary Guard, saying Iranian arms shipments to Iraq have slowed down since the Senate resolution passed. But her Democratic opponents criticized her for contributing to what they said was Bush administration saber rattling on Iran.

In an April 2008 Democratic debate, Clinton said the United States should try to create an "umbrella of deterrence" consisting of other countries in the region willing to "forswear their own nuclear ambitions." Clinton said in an April 2008 interview that if Iran were to "foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel" under her presidency, the United States could "totally obliterate them."

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) differs from many of his fellow Democratic contenders in that he has said that the United States should not engage (AP) with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he once called a “thug.”

In a 2007 MoveOn.org Town Hall Meeting, Dodd said he would support military action against Iran without congressional approval “under extreme circumstances,” though he thinks the president should seek that approval “after the emergency.”

In March 2007, Dodd cosponsored the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which would impose tighter multilateral sanctions on Iran in response to its nuclear activities. The act would expand the ban Iranian exports to the U.S. and further limits food exports from the U.S. to Iran. It also would freeze assets (PDF) of Iranian officials. That bill would also support categorizing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group. It has not yet been voted on in Congress.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards says that he would support the creation of a “nonaggression pact” (ABC) with Iran, if Iran would agree to give up its nuclear plans. To accomplish this, Edwards backs opening direct negotiations with Iran. At the same time, he has not ruled out military force as an option for U.S. policymakers.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

According to his campaign website, Gravel “firmly opposes a military confrontation with Iran.” In a presidential debate in April 2007, he said: “When you have mainline candidates that turn around and say that there's nothing off the table with respect to Iran, that's code for using nukes, nuclear devices… [if] I'm president of the United States, there will be no preemptive wars (NYT) with nuclear devices.”

In a December 2007 Democratic debate, Gravel said Iran is "not a problem," and responded to criticism that the Iranian government supports Hamas and Hezbollah. "These are two elected organizations," he said. "Why can't [Iran] give support to those organizations?"

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) is in favor of opening (AP) diplomatic relations with Iran and says, “There’s no reason for war.”

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson supports engagement (WashPost) with Iran on the issue of nuclear proliferation. In a June 2007 speech, Richardson called for unconditional talks with Iran backed by "tough sanctions." To start negotiations, Richardson said the United States must acknowledge its errors in backing the Shah and supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and in remaining silent when Hussein used chemical weapons in that war. In hisspeech, Richardson also said the U.S. must respect Iran's "legitimate right to peaceful nuclear energy" but must also stress to Iran that it will never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

At a February 2007 Democratic National Committee event, Richardson said that he would send former Secretary of State James Baker to run talks with Iran’s foreign ministry with the hope of developing a “broad agreement” that would allow Iran to develop “a civilian nuclear capacity, properly monitored by the international community.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Iran

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) has said that he is against opening diplomatic ties with Iran. Brownback was the sole sponsor in the Senate of the Iran Human Rights Act of 2006, which sought to “hold the current regime in Iran accountable for its human rights record and to support a transition to democracy in Iran.” That bill has not been passed. In March 2007, Brownback cosponsored with Dodd the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act. Brownback has said that he supports an increase in funding for independent human rights groups in Iran, and promotes regime change “from within.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore has not ruled out military action against Iran. He supports “serious mandatory sanctions” against Iran. In a May 2007 Republican debate, Gilmore said, “the American people have to at some point come to a real serious conclusion about the tough decision that has to be made when we may have to in fact strike,” indicating that he believes a strike on Iran may soon be necessary.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani has said the United States should proceed diplomatically with Iran, but that “we will use a military option if we have to.” (Fox) At the first Republican presidential debate, Giuliani said a military strike would be “very dangerous” but nuclear arms in the control of “an irrational person” like President Ahmadinejad was more dangerous.

One of Giuliani's top foreign policy advisers, neoconservative Norm Podhoretz, is a vocal advocate for bombing Iran preemptively in order to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. However, Podhoretz told the New Yorker, he has not asked Giuliani to take a stand on this topic for fear of damaging his candidacy.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee supports engaging Iran (Des Moines Register) in diplomatic talks, though he raised eyebrows (ChiTrib) in December 2007 when he acknowledged he was not familiar with a National Intelligence Estimate concluding Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Huckabee says he will not take military action against Iran "off the table," but, he warned in a January 2008 Foreign Affairs essay, Osama bin Laden "would welcome war between the United States and Iran."

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) has taken an aggressive stance toward Iran. In a May 2007 Republican debate, Hunter said Iran's alleged support for Iraqi insurgents grants the United States "absolute license" to take action against Iran. In a September 2007 interview with Baptist Press, Hunter pledged to "undertake" preemptive action against Iran if sanctions do not stop the country from obtaining nuclear capabilities. In March 2007, Hunter said he supports strong economic sanctions on Iran and cosponsored the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which strengthens the sanctions implemented by the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

In a speech before the House in April 2007, Paul (R-TX) criticized what he sees as neoconservative efforts to drum up support for military action against Iran. Paul said that although the country "is hardly a perfect democracy, its system is far superior to most of our Arab allies about which we never complain." The Texas congressman warned that a war against Iran would be disastrous and dismissed the justifications for military action against Iran as "propaganda," saying that "Iran doesn't have a nuke and is nowhere close to getting one, according to the CIA." Instead, Paul advocates a policy of non-interventionism.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney's "five-point plan" (Sioux City Journal) on Iran calls for tougher sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Iran. "Their leaders should be made to feel like those of Apartheid South Africa," (PDF) he said in September 2007. He also says that increased participation in curbing nuclear Iran by other Arab states is needed. In an April 27, 2007 speech at Yeshiva University, Romney emphasized the threat posed by Iran. While he said it was a good idea to engage Iran on Iraqi developments, Romney opposed bilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program, saying "we shouldn't let Iran try to position it as an Iran vs. a U.S. thing." Romney, like many of his fellow candidates, says that "the military option remains on the table." According to his campaign website, Romney has "led efforts and called on numerous private sector and state officials to strategically divest from Iran and cut off the resources Iran uses to fuel terror."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Tancredo has repeatedly said that the United States should support the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a prominent militant anti-Iran group based in Iraq that the State Department deems a terrorist organization.  Tancredo says “I’d like them to be a little thorn (NationalJournal) in the side of the government of Iran.” In 2005, Tancredo formed the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus in the House with Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) to discuss possible routes for U.S. policy toward Iran.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Like most of the other candidates, Thompson has expressed alarm at the possibility of a nuclear Iran and its effect on Israel’s security. “If the world doesn’t act to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it must be prepared for the consequences of Israel defending itself,” he wrote in a May 2007 op-ed for Townhall.com.

Also in May 2007, he said the United States should assist any efforts by Iranians to overthrow their government (AP).

In March 2007, Thompson criticized then-Prime Minister Tony Blair for a lack of military preparedness when Iran took fifteen British sailors prisoner. “Iran’s kidnappings are part of a plan to see that nothing interferes with its quest for nuclear weapons. If successful, other dictatorships will follow suit. This is not the time for the free world to neglect its own defense,” Thompson warned.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson has been rather vague regarding his stance on Iran. He has said that through a joint diplomatic effort with NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the United States should be able to pressure Iran (Sioux City Journal) to stop its nuclear activities.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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