The Tehran Option

Democrats criticize Bush’s Iran policy, but theirs is almost identical.

Sen. Barack Obama

It was 2004, and the Democrats were looking for a way to counter the Bush administration’s national-security-driven campaign without being perceived as weak. Since Iraq wasn’t an option—that was Bush’s mess to deal with—and terrorism also seemed problematic in the shadow of 9/11, Iran seemed a logical choice. “They haven’t been tough on the issue … they haven’t shown a leadership on the primary issue, which is the issue of nuclear weaponry,” Sen. John Kerry told the Washington Post. In the first presidential debate, he zeroed in on Iran again and again: “The British, French, and Germans were the ones who initiated an effort without the United States, regrettably, to begin to try to move to curb the nuclear possibilities in Iran,” he said.

Now it’s three years later, Iran is looming large as the second-most pressing issue on the foreign-policy pile—and is on its way to becoming the first—and Democrats are struggling to find a consistent voice on the issue. You think their Iraq policy is unclear? On Iran it’s even fuzzier. The leaders of the party are looking everywhere for a coherent policy, but the one option they won’t touch is to officially support the policy most of them prefer: the Bush policy.

Iran is a complicated issue. No magic bullets are to be found. It is also a political minefield for Democrats, who must maneuver between the realization that Iran is a grave challenge that requires serious answers and voters’ tendency to get nervous about the mere possibility of yet another conflict in the Middle East. So, for Democrats, it is politically necessary to criticize the administration. But it is also necessary for them to preserve the appearance of toughness and to avoid suggesting a solution that will come back to haunt them down the road.

Their criticism has moved from blaming the Bush team for doing too little to blaming it for doing too much: too much threat, too much bold rhetoric. Practically, though, it comes down to one thing: Is it advisable to talk directly to Iran with no conditions attached?

“This is no time for chest-beating and dangerous brinkmanship,” New Mexico governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson said recently. “It is time for alliance-building, direct engagement, and tough face-to-face negotiations.” His colleague and fellow hopeful John Edwards said, “It’s a huge strategic mistake not to be dealing directly with Iran.” The rest of the field repeated the same message in one form or another.

The pro-dialogue argument is an understandable and obvious one. In fact, it’s the only option if you’re looking for a solution that hasn’t already been tried. Democrats keep calling for coalition-building, but the Bush administration can claim that it has already done that through U.N. Security Council resolutions. The Democrats also keep calling for more diplomacy, but the administration repeats again and again that it is committed to a “diplomatic solution.” Since every poll shows that the public will always support “direct dialogue,” whatever that means, the Democrats are wise to focus on this option, which also has the benefit of being a recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.

“Can we not speak of the interests of others, work to establish a sustained dialogue, and seek to benefit the people of Iran and the region?” asks the new Web site, sponsored by Gen. Wesley Clark. “We have tools available to us to engage them,” Edwards said in Iowa two weeks ago. What benefits the Democrats on the issue of engagement is that most people aren’t interested in details. No talks are happening—so it must be that the administration doesn’t want any. But is that really true? “What we need to do is to engage Iran on the basis of the international community’s standard,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week. This standard is “that they need to stop their enrichment and reprocessing capabilities” for the talks to begin.

Do you hear any Democrats suggesting that this condition should be removed from the table? Do they want the United States to talk to Iran while the centrifuges in Natanz are producing enriched uranium? I couldn’t find any such suggestion. What one does hear from the Democrats is a general, noncommittal assertion of the need to talk. For the past year or so, this has been administration policy, but only if the Iranians will freeze their enrichment activities. On Monday, David Ignatius reported that this policy will be moderated even further. “The Bush administration has agreed to sit around a negotiating table with official representatives of Iran and Syria next month—as part of a planned regional conference in Baghdad to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq.”

If the Democrats’ policy propositions seem like the one the administration is implementing, talk about the future is even more similar—but once again, political masquerading covers it in a lot of anti-Bush rhetoric. “If the president has plans to go to war with Iran he has no—emphasize no—constitutional authority to do that,” warned Sen. Joe Biden, the leading Democratic voice on foreign policy and yet another presidential hopeful.

All this is not to say that a war can’t be seen as a future possibility. But Democrats, at least in public, have never said that such a war is inconceivable. What if the Iranians don’t want to talk and won’t comply with U.N. resolutions? Last month, in a speech at an Israeli conference, Edwards sounded much tougher than he usually is on Iran, saying: “Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. … We need to keep all options on the table. Let me reiterate—all options must remain on the table.” Three weeks ago, Sen. Hillary Clinton said that “no option can be taken off the table” and that “we cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons.”

Can you do that without going to war? Maybe you can, but only if the Iranians eventually cave to international pressure. All these warnings about the possibility of President Bush dragging America into war with Iran run contrary to the repeatedly stated position that “no option [is] off the table.” Keeping “all options” available is intended as a threat: If you do not comply with U.N. resolutions, if you’re not impressed with sanctions, we might have to use other tools. This is a threat the Democrats are making, not Bush.

They might not want voters to know this—or perhaps they will never actually reach the point of execution; maybe they’ll back out at the last minute. Still, the fact of the matter is that the Democrats’ desired outcome of the conflict with Iran is no different from the one Bush reiterates day in and day out, and the tools they have on their menu of options is not much different, either.

Will Democrats be willing to use these tools? Do they believe that a nuclear Iran is as grave a danger as Bush does? The answer to this question was given by the most unlikely of Democratic candidates. It was a long time ago, before he was contemplating a run for the presidency and before he became the darling of the Democratic left. “In light of the fact that we’re now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in,” Barack Obama told the Chicago Tribune back in 2004. “On the other hand,” he added, “having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran.”

That wasn’t Dick Cheney speaking.