The Iran Beauty Contest

Republican candidates have an Iran strategy: Say what the Democrats say.

John McCain

Back in 1980, chief negotiator Warren Christopher felt a need to warn the Iranians: If they wanted to cut a deal to release the U.S. hostages held in the American diplomatic mission in Tehran, they’d better do so immediately, with the lame-duck Carter administration. This was the message the Carter team he worked for wanted to convey, but it was also quite acceptable to the incoming Reagan administration. Cut a deal immediately—because Ronald Reagan might prove a tougher and less compromising partner. Cut a deal immediately, because Carter had already lost the election and had nothing to gain, politically. This would also free Reagan to pursue his agenda rather than spend the valuable early period in the White House solving another administration’s crisis. On the day of President Reagan’s inauguration, after 444 days in detention, the hostages were freed.

President George W. Bush, who also has little opportunity for political gain, is offering the Iranians a decent deal: Stop enriching uranium and enter negotiation. So far, no takers.

As I wrote three weeks ago, the Democratic presidential candidates attack the current administration for not doing more to engage the Iranians—but their proposals are very similar to Bush’s. The Republican candidates have an even less convincing MO: They attack the Democrats for attacking the president and end up suggesting, more or less, the same thing. Maybe this is the real story here: There’s only one serious option when it comes to Iran and a lot of politicians spinning it. After all, the 2008 campaign has already begun—and we can hardly expect to hear political rivals say, “We agree.” Even if they do.

That’s why Mitt Romney was ridiculing “a speech two days ago in New York City, [where] Sen. Hillary Clinton said that she needs to quote ‘understand’ unquote Iran better—and we need to quote ‘engage Iran’ unquote.” Romney’s recipe for Iran? “Economic and diplomatic isolation.” Not much different from Clinton’s, in other words.

Or take Rudy Giuliani. While he doesn’t unequivocally call for a military strike, the surging Republican seems to suggest that he would be more likely than the Democratic candidates to order one. “I believe [sanctions have] a better chance of working if [the Iranian leader] believes that he has a president who will not under any circumstances allow Iran to have nuclear weapons,” he said a couple of days ago.

But is Giuliani really ready to act, or is he just hiding the same old policy under a pile of tough talk? Here’s what he had to say to Sean Hannity, a sympathetic host, about the Iraq Study Group recommendation that the United States should engage with Iran and Syria:

The minute you put it up front, you give them all the leverage and you take all the leverage away from us. That recommendation would have been better delivered quietly, secretly. And then … through back channels, you find out. Can I achieve something with Ahmadinejad? Can I achieve something with Syria? Right now, it doesn’t look that way. The better thing to do in Iran is to put pressure on them and to let them know that we will not accept their being a nuclear power.

That is basically it: sanctions, pressure, and back channels, all in the hope that the Iranians will react positively. Is there a debate? Perhaps there is, over the question of engagement now or engagement after the Iranians freeze their uranium-enrichment program. Are there any other major disagreements? Not really. Still, the impression voters get is that the field is full of competing doctrines and rival schools of thought.

The truth is different: For the leading candidates from both parties, the Iran question isn’t a policy debate; it’s a beauty contest. It’s not about what the candidates say they want; it’s about who you believe really means what they say. It’s not about engagement versus the military option; it’s about voters’—and the Iranians’—perception of the candidate’s character. Do you believe Romney would dare do what Clinton would not? Do you think that Giuliani is more likely to go all the way than John Edwards?

We keep hearing John McCain’s observation that “there is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that, my friends, is a nuclear-armed Iran.” This is not so different from the 2004 Barack Obama quote that I ended my Feb. 27 piece with: “[U]s launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in. … On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.”

McCain is the one that gets quoted, rather than Obama, because there’s a public perception that McCain’s threat is more sincere than Obama’s. There’s a commonly held assumption that Giuliani’s threat is more credible than Edwards’, because Rudy has a background as an uncompromising street fighter (albeit against crime in New York). Giuliani and the Republicans will use perception to their advantage: Even today, this tough-guy image makes the Republican Party more acceptable to voters when it comes to fighting terrorism.

So, yes, they all want sanctions, and they all believe that no option should be taken off the table—McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have all said as much. But you have to ask yourself how much you believe them. If the public keeps believing that the Republican candidates have more of the toughness that’s needed to execute the policy, then the Republican strategy is working better.