Iran Dominates in GOP Debate

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In a world full of challenges, the Islamic regime's nuclear program drew the concern of Republican candidates on Tuesday night

Gingrich Cain CNN DC debate - AP Photo:Evan Vucci - banner.jpg

Egypt is being roiled by violent political protests, raising questions about the future of a vital American ally. Syria continues a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists, prompting talk of a Western military intervention there. China is poised to overtake the U.S. economically, and Beijing's increasingly aggressive foreign policy threatens key U.S. priorities around the globe.

Tuesday's Republican debate revolved around a different country, however. As with the recent National Journal/CBS News debate, the eight Republican candidates taking part in CNN's foreign policy debate devoted most of their comments to Iran and the difficult question of how to stop its nuclear program.

Iran represents arguably the toughest national security policy issue facing the U.S. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran's covert nuclear program was closer than ever to successfully building a bomb, and Western intelligence services say Iran has sharply accelerated the amount of activity at a suspected nuclear site near Tehran.

The GOP candidates also believe that Iran represents one of the Obama administration's biggest foreign policy vulnerabilities. President Obama took office with talk of launching talks - without preconditions - with Iran's Islamist rulers. His diplomatic outreach was rebuffed, however, and Tehran appears to have stepped up both its nuclear efforts and its support for paramilitary proxies in nations like Iraq and Lebanon.

To leading Republican candidates like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Obama's failure to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear effort - and the White House's frosty relationship with the Israeli government - offers a pathway for potentially increasing their support among Jewish and other pro-Israel voters. Both used Tuesday's debate to bash Obama for his handling of Iran, with Gingrich and Herman Cain explicitly promising to take part in an Israeli-led military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The GOP criticism of Obama is somewhat unfair: the president has put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed on the Iranian government, including new measures Monday which target - for the first time - Iran's entire financial system. The administration of then-President George W. Bush talked tough on Iran, frequently referring to its nuclear program as a redline, but Bush never came close to ordering an American military strike on Iran and consistently made clear that he didn't want Israel to carry one out, either.

On Tuesday night, Michele Bachmann offered another criticism of Obama, this one patently untrue. The Minnesota congresswoman said Obama had met with the Iranians without preconditions, a comment which was entirely false. During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama indeed talked of meeting with the Iranian leadership. Since taking office, however, Obama administration officials have held only low-level meetings with Iranian officials, primarily to talk about ways of stabilizing Afghanistan. Neither Obama nor any of his cabinet members have ever sat down with Iranian leaders.

Such nuance appeared largely lost on the Republican candidates, who seemed eager to outdo each other with their tough talk about Iran. Cain said he'd support an Israeli strike on Iran and potentially order the U.S. military to take part in the assault. Rick Perry said the U.S. should sanction Iran's central bank - a move which would devastate Iran's economy but risk sending oil prices higher and sparking a violent Iranian response - and consider imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, a close ally of Tehran. Romney, Cain and Ron Paul all made clear they opposed the idea.

The two Republican frontrunners went even further when it came to Iran. Gingrich said the U.S. should cut off gas supplies to Iran and wage a covert campaign designed to topple Iran's government within a year; the former House speaker also said he'd support bombing Iran if it led to the replacement of the country's theocratic regime. Romney, who's previously said he'd support airstrikes on Iran, said Tuesday that he'd seek to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for violating United Nations conventions against inciting genocide. The former Massachusetts governor also promised that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel to reassure Jerusalem of Washington's continued support for the Jewish state.

Notably, Romney didn't repeat one of his most controversial statements from the National Journal debate: his assertion that "if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon," whereas electing him would somehow prevent Iran from building such a weapon.

Romney's omission may have been unintentional, but it hinted at a deeper truth. It is easy to talk tough about Iran, and it is easy - and potentially justifiable - to criticize the Obama administration for failing to stop its nuclear program. But no U.S. president has managed to find an effective strategy for deterring Iran, and it's far from clear that the next president, regardless of who it is, will somehow manage to do so. The Republican candidates continue to jostle for position, but the challenge posed by Iran is far more challenging than a mere debating point.

Image credit: Evan Vucci/AP

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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