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Democratic and Republican presidential candidates appear to agree on the importance of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But they differ on how best to do that.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports the debate over Iran sounds a lot like the debate over Iraq five years ago this fall.
DON GONYEA: Suddenly, Iran is the foreign policy story in Washington. The president warns of World War III should Iran acquire knowledge to build a nuclear weapon. Vice President Cheney chips in with a tough speech of his own over the weekend. And for those running to succeed Bush-Cheney in the White House, the debate over how to deal with Iran is increasingly prominent. When Democrats talk about Iran, they warn that the White House is leading the country into another Iraq.
Here's Senator Barack Obama in Iowa last month.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Iran in particular poses a great challenge. It builds a nuclear program, supports terrorism, and threatens Israel with destruction. But we hear eerie echoes of the runup to the war in Iraq in the way the president and the vice president talk about Iran.
GONYEA: And this week, Obama has been using Iran as a way to put Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton on the defensive. Clinton is the only senator running for president to vote for the so-called Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, a get-tough measure that declares a branch of Iran's military to be a terrorist organization. In a mailing to Iowa voters, Obama accuses Clinton of giving President Bush an excuse for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq longer, or even for starting a war with Iran. He likens it to her vote to give the president the authority to use military force against Iraq back in 2002.
Clinton responded in a letter of her own to Iowans, saying she opposed any military action against Iran without full congressional approval. And she defended her support of Kyl-Lieberman at a September debate in New Hampshire.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): And in what we voted for today, we will have an opportunity to designate it as a terrorist organization, which gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders to try to begin, to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran.
GONYEA: On the Republican side, the Iran rhetoric is at times almost a call to battle stations. It started early in the year when John McCain was asked about it at a South Carolina town hall meeting.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): That old Beach Boys song, bomb Iran?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. McCAIN: (Singing) Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb - anyway…
(Soundbite of laughter)
GONYEA: Since then, McCain's words have been much more measured. Here he is at a debate this month in Dearborn, Michigan.
Sen. McCAIN: I would, at minimum, consult with the leaders of Congress because there may be come a time where you need the approval of Congress, and I believe that this is a possibility that is may be closer to reality than we are discussing tonight.
GONYEA: It's that urgency which seems to presume that Iran is actually developing nuclear weapons that echoes the Bush administration. At one debate, Mitt Romney was asked if he'd need congressional approval to strike Iran. At the time, he said he'd consult lawyers on the question, but he has since dropped that line. In a new TV ad, he talks about the need to confront Islamic Jihadists, and he mentions Iran.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): Increase our military by at least 100,000. And monitor the calls al-Qaida makes into America. And we can and will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I'm Mitt Romney, and I…
GONYEA: Today, Romney reacted to news of new White House sanctions by saying he would be willing to use a military blockade or bombardment of some kind to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
Then there's Rudy Giuliani who has consistently taken the hardest line of all among the frontrunners regarding potential military action.
Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York; Republican Presidential Candidate): Iran is a greater danger than Iraq. Iraq cannot be seen in a vacuum, and we have to be willing to use a military option to stop Iran from becoming nuclear.
GONYEA: Candidates on each side so far are focusing on primary voters who tend to either oppose the Iraq War or support it, more strongly than the average American. So right now, it's the extremes of opinion on Iraq that drive the debate over how the U.S. should handle Iran.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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