Candidates Diverge On How To Handle Iran

McCain and Obama
Gabriel Bouys/Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Comparing Plans

McCain and Obama both consider Iran a threat and support tougher economic sanctions against the country. They have said they would do everything in their power to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Where they differ is on whether the U.S. should engage in direct talks with Iranian leaders.

McCain: McCain has called direct talks with Iran fruitless. "Rather than sitting down unconditionally with the Iranian president or supreme leader in the hope we can talk sense into them, we must create the real-world pressures that will peacefully but decisively change the path that they are on," he said.

Obama: Obama has said that ignoring the country's leaders only isolates and strengthens them. "I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking. But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States," he said.

Both Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain and Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama reacted swiftly on Tuesday to news that Iran test-fired nine missiles during military exercises, including one that could reach Israel.

Until recently, Iran has not been a big issue in the presidential election campaign. But talk in Israel and in the U.S. about possible airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities has intensified in recent weeks. That has focused more of the candidates' attention on Iran.

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much difference between McCain and Obama regarding Iran.

After the news broke that Iran test-fired missiles, Obama reacted first during an appearance on ABC's Good Morning America.

"Iran is a grave threat," he said. "We have to make sure that we are working with our allies to apply tightening pressure economically on Iran, at the same time as we start engaging in the kind of direct diplomacy that can lead them to standing down on issues like nuclear weapons."

McCain was asked about the missile tests at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

"The time has now come for effective sanctions on Iran, which will then, I believe, have a modifying effect on their very aggressive behavior, not only rhetorically but in their pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as this latest missile test," he said. "Lines of communication are fine. Action is what's necessary."

At first blush, both candidates seem to be offering the same remedy for Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons — tougher economic sanctions. This has been the Bush administration's policy as well. There have been three rounds of economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, as well as an array of sanctions imposed by the United States on its own, including an effort to isolate Iran's banks.

Whether these sanctions have had much effect on Iran, given the windfall it has received in oil revenues, is a big question.

Where The Candidates Differ On Iran

Upon closer inspection, there is a significant difference between McCain and Obama on the issue of whether the U.S. should pursue direct talks with Iran.

McCain believes that it is fruitless, as he explained in a speech last month to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby known as AIPAC.

"Rather than sitting down unconditionally with the Iranian president or supreme leader in the hope we can talk sense into them, we must create the real-world pressures that will peacefully but decisively change the path that they are on," he said.

The background here is Obama's pledge during the primary campaign to sit down with America's adversaries any place, anytime to pursue diplomatic solutions to potentially explosive problems, like Iran's nuclear program.

Obama addressed that issue as well in his speech to AIPAC.

"Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking. But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States," he said.

Both candidates have said they will do everything in their power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But Obama sees the record of the Bush administration, which has set preconditions for any direct talks with Iran, as strengthening Tehran's hand, says Susan Rice, one of Obama's chief foreign policy advisers.

"Sen. Obama's view is that the approach the Bush administration has taken towards Iran has been utterly counterproductive and has left Iran more powerful and further along the path towards achieving its nuclear ambitions than it would otherwise have been," Rice said.

McCain believes that the Bush administration's approach has been the right one, which he intends to continue and improve upon. His chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, calls the Obama approach unilateral cowboy diplomacy.

"What Sen. Obama has done, rather than support the effort where we have a common trans-Atlantic policy with our key European allies, he has disparaged those efforts," Scheunemann said. "He called it outsourcing diplomacy, which in Sen. Obama's lexicon is not a positive characterization of the effort."

Essentially, this is an argument about means, not ends, and the record of the Bush administration.

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