Although Iraq was supposed to be the definitive issue for the 2008 campaign, from the outset Iran seemed to present the biggest national security test for all candidates. Republicans assured voters they were ready to take military action to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program, while top-tier Democratic candidates stressed military force could not be ruled out as a preventive tool.
But the December 3 release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) indicating that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 forced the candidates to clarify their views. The biggest stir was among Democrats, where contenders who long trailed Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the polls saw a chance to exploit her perceived hawkishness on Iran. While Clinton said she was “relieved” at the NIE’s findings, the report may have done more damage to her campaign than to any other. The barrage of criticism that followed her vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, a nonbinding Senate measure that designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, was just beginning to subside when the NIE catapulted the issue back into her opponents’ talking points. In the December 4 Democratic debate hosted by NPR, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) pointed to Clinton’s cautious language on Iran as indicative of what he believes are her true sentiments. Biden chided Clinton for merely opposing the “rush to war,” rather than coming out unequivocally against striking Iran.
Also in that debate, Clinton again had to go on the defensive with regard to her Kyl-Lieberman vote, insisting that the bill “did not in any way authorize the president to take any action that would lead to war.” She said as a result of labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, “We've actually seen some changes in their behavior.” Clinton and her Democratic rivals all favor some form of expanded engagement with Iran, but in light of the new NIE they should clarify their “vague incrementalism,” write national security experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett in a New York Times op-ed.
On the Republican side, the outrage was directed at the report more than fellow candidates. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed on ABC’s This Week that the NIE’s release was “the equivalent of a coup d'etat” by members of the intelligence community seeking to undermine the Bush administration. GOP candidates, with some exceptions, reaffirmed their skepticism toward the Ahmadinejad regime, and some even questioned the validity of the NIE. Rudy Giuliani said on Meet the Press that it does not eliminate the possibility of a preemptive strike on Iran. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also said (Fox News) the NIE does not take military action against Iran “off the table.” McCain also stopped short, in an interview with CFR.org, of endorsing broader diplomatic talks with Iran. “I don’t want to give the president of Iran a forum to declare his rather radically extreme views particularly as regards to terrorism and the state of Israel is concerned,” he said.
Fred Thompson responded (Fox News) to news of the NIE with the greatest cynicism. “They're undoubtedly intent upon nuclear weapons. I don't care what this latest NIE says. That's foolishness that represents our own inability to get a handle on it more than anything else.” Mitt Romney was more cautious, calling (Fox News) the report’s findings “good news,” but asserting (Real Clear Politics) that Iran is still enriching uranium and should still be viewed as a threat.