Obama: Iran Requires Direct Diplomacy

Sen. Barack Obama says that as president, he would use direct diplomacy to constrain Iran's role in Iraq, encouraging Iran to cooperate with the United States through non-military means.

In an interview with NPR's Andrea Seabook from a campaign stop in Iowa, Obama said that he'd use whatever military force is necessary to protect U.S. citizens, but that "the military option is not the only option in the toolbox."

"I think Iran understands what military threats we pose. You know, they're not surprised that we could strike them, and strike them hard," Obama said. "What we haven't suggested in any way is what advantages they would have in acting more responsibly in the region. That's been the missing ingredient."

The Illinois Democrat's comments follow a week of sparring over Iran with his main rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has a commanding lead in the polls. On Thursday, Clinton said she'd meet with Iranian leaders "without preconditions" — a position she criticized Obama for taking earlier in the summer. Obama also questioned Clinton's judgment in voting for last month's Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which identified the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Obama said the amendment included language that empowers the president to attack Iran.

"This is a lesson that I think Sen. Clinton and others should have learned: that you can't give this president a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it," Obama said.

A transcript of Seabrook's interview with Obama follows:

We want to talk to you about issues today, how a President Obama would lead the United States. But let me ask first one political question. You have consistently polled behind New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Do you think she is weak on some issues?

Well, I think that I am stronger for the kinds of challenges that we're going to face in the next several years.

Which ones?

Otherwise I wouldn't be running for president.

Which ones?

I think that the two key challenges that we face is to bring this country together and make sure that we can actually overcome the special interest-driven politics and the partisanship in Washington to get things done on health care and on energy. And I think that I'm in a better position to bring the country together than Sen. Clinton is. I also think the second big challenge is to repair the damage that's been done by George Bush when it comes to foreign policy.

Then let's turn to foreign policy. You and Sen. Clinton, neither of you have agreed to directly pulling out troops, as some in your party would like. What's the difference between you two on Iraq, on what you would actually do now?

Well, I think it is important to understand that I opposed this war from the start and Sen. Clinton did not.

What difference does that make now, sir, though?

Because what it shows is judgment. We can't anticipate what challenges we're going to face in the future. Nobody knew that in 2001, our foreign policy would fundamentally be transformed. And the question is, how are you going to react to the new challenges and the new opportunities that present themselves in the years to come? And on the most important foreign policy issue of a generation, I got it right and others did not. And that has bearing in terms of how I will approach and assess the critical choices that lie ahead.

There is a challenge now. So what would you do now that is different than what Sen. Clinton would do?

Well, you know, I won't speak for Sen. Clinton in terms of how she would approach it. But I think that the way you characterize it isn't quite right. I have said that we have to get our troops out, and that we have to do so as quickly as possible. The only thing that I've called for is a very limited force to provide security for our embassy and for our diplomats on the ground, as well as to carry out targeted strikes against al-Qaida operatives that may try to set up base camp in Iraq.

But the most important thing that we have to do is initiate the kind of diplomacy that is going to stabilize the situation. And there, Sen. Clinton and I do appear to have a difference, although it's hard to tell. I suggested that we should talk to our enemies and not just our friends, including Iran, including Syria. I got in an argument with Sen. Clinton back in the summer about this, because she suggested that that approach of negotiating without preconditions could be used for propaganda purposes and would be naive.

But at the same time that you talk about the threat from Iran and the importance of dealing with Iran, you don't support the amendment that Sen. Clinton does that would designate the Iranian al Quds force as a terrorist organization. Why don't you support that?

Well, I would have supported a stand-alone piece of legislation identifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The problem was that it was embedded in language that suggested the president should maintain the force structure in Iraq that is needed to blunt the influence of Iran inside Iraq. And that provides an aggressive Bush-Cheney administration potentially the opening to initiate military action against Iran.

This is a lesson that I think Sen. Clinton and others should have learned: that you can't give this president a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it.

Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, says that the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is part of that al Quds force and that it is known — it is documented — that Iran is all mixed up in the Shia militias in the south of Iraq. How would would you, as President Obama, solve the problems in Iraq without dealing with the role of Iran down there?

Oh, we have to deal with the role of Iran. The question is whether we deal with Iran through saber-rattling, or whether we deal with Iran by direct diplomatic engagement. The key for us is to engage in the sort of direct talks that we engaged in, by the way, when Iran cooperated with us in dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's that sort of direct engagement that this president has been unwilling to do, but under an Obama administration would be, I think a top priority.

It sounds a little bit, sir, like you are all carrot and no stick, if I might just use a cliche.

Well, maybe that's because we haven't been talking about what kinds of military actions are available. The truth is that I've said repeatedly that military options should remain on the table. The question is, do you lead with those or do you present carrots and sticks at the same time? I think Iran understands what military threats we pose. They're not surprised that we could strike them and strike them hard.

What we haven't suggested in any way is what advantages they would have in acting more responsibly in the region. That's been the missing ingredient. As president, I will use whatever military force is necessary to protect U.S. citizens and interests around the globe. But what I also understand is that the military option is not the only option in the toolbox. We've had an administration that thinks the only tool is a hammer, and as a consequence, everything looks like a nail. And we've done incredible damage to our security and standing around the world.

If I could just try one last political question, sir, Georgia Congressman John Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton today — John Lewis, of course, a civil rights icon in the United States. This has got to be something of a blow to your campaign.

Well, we have probably the majority of Georgia elected officials, including two congressmen who have endorsed us. I can't expect to be getting every single endorsement, given the eight years of a Clinton presidency, and the long-time relationships that he has established with leaders all across the country, and the favors that he's done for political players all across the country. I promise you this: that as much respect as I have for John Lewis, it's not going to have much of an impact on the Iowa caucuses, or the New Hampshire primary. And ultimately, that's what's going to determine who the next nominee is.

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