Over the past month, the issue of how the United States will address Iran’s nuclear program has become one of the centerpieces of the foreign policy debate between the two presumptive major-party presidential candidates. The candidates differ in particular on their perceptions of the usefulness of direct dialogue with Iran, with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) indicating that he would drop U.S. preconditions for meeting with Iran and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declaring that such an approach would only strengthen the ruling regime in Tehran.
The Bush administration maintains that it will not hold discussions with Iran on the nuclear issue until Iran complies with UN Security Council demands to suspend its enrichment-related activities and halt the construction of its heavy-water reactor. The Security Council has adopted four resolutions reiterating these requirements.
Obama, however, has affirmed that he would be willing to engage in direct talks with Iran without these preconditions. During a Nov. 11, 2007, Meet the Press interview, Obama characterized such preconditions as meaning that “we won’t meet with people unless they’ve already agreed to the very things that we expect to be meeting with them about.”
He stated in a June 4 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that he would present Iran with a “clear choice” between cooperation or increased pressure and argued that, should Iran fail to cooperate, such a diplomatic overture would “strengthen our hand with Russia and China as we insist on stronger sanctions in the Security Council.”
Obama has also suggested the possibility of a summit-level meeting with Iran but has cautioned that such a meeting may not involve Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He told reporters May 27 that there is no reason to meet with Ahmadinejad “before we know he [is] actually in power,” adding “he’s not the most powerful person in Iran.” Iran will hold its presidential elections in mid-2009. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the highest political authority in Iran.
On several occasions, McCain has criticized Obama’s willingness to hold direct talks with Iranian leaders without preconditions, suggesting that such an approach would only strengthen the regime in Tehran. In a June 2 speech to AIPAC, McCain claimed that a meeting between the U.S. president and the Iranian president or supreme leader would “harm Iranian moderates and dissidents” and grant the hard-line elements of the regime “the appearance of respectability.”
During a May 19 campaign speech, however, McCain stated that the United States should “communicate with Iran our concerns about their behavior” at an “appropriate” diplomatic level.
Public support appears to favor direct talks with Iran’s leadership. According to a May 19-21 Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans support holding direct talks with the president of Iran.
Aside from their split over the value of direct negotiations, the candidates hold markedly similar positions on ways in which the United States can increase pressure on Iran.
Each maintains that no options should be “taken off the table”—a reference to the potential use of military action—and stress the need for more robust multilateral sanctions against Iranian financial institutions and its energy sector. In particular, the candidates advocate going beyond Security Council sanctions to apply financial and political pressure on Iran.
McCain said June 2 that, should the Security Council “delay in [its] responsibility” to impose harsher sanctions against Tehran, Washington must lead “like-minded countries” to do so. Obama echoed this suggestion during his June 4 speech, stating that the United States should “find every avenue outside the United Nations to isolate the Iranian regime.”
Among the measures both candidates have cited as necessary to increase pressure on Iran are sanctions to limit Iran’s ability to import refined petroleum and encouraging a private divestment campaign modeled on the international divestment effort against the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s.
McCain and Obama have also supported legislation that would mandate U.S. sanctions on foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. firms that do business with Iran and that call for listing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization.
The IRGC is a military organization, comprised of about 150,000 individuals, that oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program and elements of its nuclear program. It also controls an array of commercial enterprises.