Video: Clinton urges diplomacy with Iran

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updated 11/2/2007 11:37:52 AM ET 2007-11-02T15:37:52
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The debate over Iran is rapidly moving in opposite directions in the Republican and Democratic presidential races -- virtually ensuring that the eventual nominees will collide over the issue in next year's general election.

The leading Republican candidates, in a rhetorical arms race, are talking tough about using military force if it's necessary to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Most of the Democratic field, conversely, is voicing growing skepticism about a pre-emptive attack on Iran and is accusing front-runner Hillary Rodham Clintonof helping President Bush move toward one.

These mirror-image debates are widening the distance between the parties on a challenge that appears likely to share the spotlight with the Iraq war in next year's campaign debate over foreign policy. "I think you are going to see a big divide between the two parties on this," says Joe Trippi, a senior strategist for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. "There is real potential this will, and should, be a major issue going into the general election."

Iran is already emerging as a major focus in each nomination fight, although it is creating sharper differences between Democrats than Republicans.

The leading Republican contenders have all applauded Bush's sharpening public criticism of Iran and his decision last week to impose sanctions on Iran's military, including the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. The GOP contenders "are all within the same range," said Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative national security advocacy group. "They all understand the enormous consequence of letting Iran obtain nuclear weapons."

While declaring that their first moves as president would involve economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, the leading Republicans have leapfrogged Bush in openly threatening a military strike if Iran continues its nuclear development program . "I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently told the Republican Jewish Coalition, "because they're not going to get nuclear weapons."

Last week in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivered an even more explicit warning. "If for some reasons they continue down their course of folly toward nuclear ambition, then I would take military action if that's available to us," he declared. "We have a number of options -- from blockades to bombardment of some kind -- and that's something we very much have to keep on the table."

Among the top Republican candidates, the sole dispute over Iran has revolved around whether Romney would be too slow to resort to force. When Romney was asked in an October debate whether he would seek congressional authorization for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, he said he would "let the lawyers sort out" the answer. That response prompted Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona to charge that Romney might hesitate too long before confronting Iran.

The Democratic contest, meanwhile, is speeding in the opposite direction. Edwards, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and several of the second-tier candidates are relentlessly criticizing Clinton for having supported a September Senate resolution that urged Bush to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. (Obama missed that vote.)

Clinton's critics argue that Bush could interpret the resolution as permission for military action against Iran and extending the U.S. mission in Iraq to counter Iranian influence there. The New York senator has vehemently denied that interpretation -- most notably in an October mailing to Iowa Democrats. Although she voted for the resolution encouraging Bush to censure the Revolutionary Guard Corps, she is also co-sponsoring a bill that would require him to get congressional authorization before striking Iran militarily.

But Obama and Edwards show no signs of dropping this cudgel even though Bush, in the sanctions announced last week, did not go as far to target the Revolutionary Guard as the resolution urged. Each of Clinton's top rivals has integrated attacks on her vote into his own stump speech. And Edwards, along with several of the second-tier candidates, pounded her over the vote in Tuesday's Democratic debate. Clinton's vote, Edwards insisted on Tuesday, "literally gave Bush and [Vice President] Cheney exactly what they wanted."

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The dovish stands of Obama and Edwards are likely to sit well with their party: In a mid-October CNN/Opinion Research survey, Democrats opposed military action against Iran by more than 7-to-1. By contrast, Republicans split almost evenly -- with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing military action. Independents, for now, break toward the Democrats, with two-thirds opposing military action.

Trippi, the Edwards adviser, says there has been "a steady uptick in the saliency" of the Iran dispute for Democratic primary voters, particularly in Iowa. And National Journal/NBC reporters traveling with the candidates in Iowa have indeed found awareness of the controversy rising.

At an Obama rally in Cedar Rapids on Monday, for instance, Clara Oleson, a retired teacher and longtime feminist, said she worries that Clinton's vote for the Iran resolution means that she is too receptive to military action. "She has to out-hawk the hawks to show that she is strong," Oleson said. "If you had told me four years ago that I would not be gung-ho about the first woman president, I would have said I didn't believe it. But that's how serious this is."

Clinton was confronted directly about the issue last week. As she shook hands along a rope line after a speech in the liberal university town of Ames, Iowa, one woman told her that people were saying the senator had voted for legislation that would help Bush to attack Iran.

"Yeah, I know that's going around," Clinton replied. "It's not true."

One senior Clinton adviser said that her campaign remains confident that the controversy over Iran will dissipate as more voters understand her position. But Clinton is trying to explain a position on Iran that is probably more complex and carefully calibrated than any other candidate's in either party.

Clinton last summer condemned Obama for declaring that, as president, he would personally negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions. But in October, she said that, if elected, she would direct her subordinates to begin unconditional negotiations. The difference, Clinton argued, is that she would withhold the prestige of a presidential-level meeting until progress warranted it. Clinton (like Obama and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware, another Democratic presidential contender) endorsed the sanctions that Bush imposed last week; Edwards denounced them as a step toward war.

Video: Obama: No tough talk

Taken together, Clinton argues, her positions make up a strategy of aggressive negotiations backed by the willingness to pressure Iran, first through diplomacy then ultimately through force if necessary. Clinton's Democratic opponents and many Republicans see something else: an attempt to blur the differences between her position on Iran and that of the eventual Republican nominee. "Hillary Clinton is going to take care that her position is not that distant from that of her Republican rivals -- at least so long as she is up 20 points in the [primary] polls," May said.

But the senior Clinton adviser says that analysis fundamentally misreads Clinton's intention, on both political and policy grounds. Clinton, the adviser said, is placing herself between Democrats who may appear too reluctant to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions and Republicans whom voters may see as too quick to use force. (Clinton signaled that approach at Tuesday's Democratic debate, declaring, "I am not in favor of this rush for war, but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing.") If Clinton wins the nomination, the adviser continued, she would want to pursue the debate on Iran, not mute it.

Slideshow: A perilous path "I think there will be very clear differences between Senator Clinton and the Republican nominee on these issues," the adviser said. "Each of the leading Republicans seems to think Iraq went so well we need to do another one in Iran right away. That certainly will provide a contrast to what her position is. I mean, Rudy sounds like he's Mayor Strangelove."

For their part, the Republican contenders are denouncing the Democrats as naive for criticizing Bush's new sanctions or promising broad negotiations with Iran. In Iowa last week, McCain said that "unconditional high-level negotiations" with Iran, as the Democrats are proposing, would only increase that nation's influence in the Middle East. "Tehran would like nothing more," he added.

With such charges already proliferating, a confrontation between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees over Iran next year seems inevitable -- no matter what happens between the U.S. and Iran in the meantime.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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