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(photo credit: obama.senate.gov)
In a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Chicago on Friday, Senator Barack Obama explained his approach toward this region.
Though he followed much the same line as the other main contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination - Hillary Clinton and John Edwards - some slight differences are instructive and even encouraging.
All three Democratic aspirants are strongly critical of the war in Iraq. Edwards and Clinton voted in the Senate to authorize the war in 2002, Edwards later apologized for doing so, and Obama opposed the war all along.
All three candidates have advocated opening talks with Iran, and are now taking credit for President George W. Bush's evident about-face on this issue.
All three insist that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, though Edwards has backtracked significantly on this since he made a tough speech to the Herzliya Conference in January.
In general, the Democrats are making the case that the war in Iraq, far from advancing American and Israeli security, has made it harder to address the more serious threat from Iran. As Obama put it, "As the US redeploys from Iraq, we can recapture lost influence in the Middle East... And we can, then, more effectively deal with what I consider to be one of the greatest threats to the United States, to Israel, and world peace, and that is Iran."
After warning that Teheran's threats to destroy Israel cannot be dismissed as "mere rhetoric," Obama said: "The world must work to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons... And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons."
We do not subscribe to the notion that ignoring Saddam, particularly after the UN sanctions and weapons inspection efforts had collapsed, would have been good for human rights or international security. Nor do we agree that Iraq can now simply be written off and abandoned to its fate, and that this would advance the West's cause rather than that of Iran and its terrorist proxies.
We also see attempts to negotiate with Iran as naive and potentially harmful, if they are allowed to undermine the international campaign to force Teheran to abandon its nuclear program.
That said, we see an important area of agreement between Bush and his Democratic opponents. Both sides agree on the objective of stopping Iran and on the means of doing so: tightening sanctions while keeping the military option on the table.
Obama was particularly explicit on the sanctions point. He called for "Tough-minded diplomacy [that] would include real leverage through stronger sanctions... [This] would mean harnessing the collective power of our friends in Europe who are Iran's major trading partners."
This may be the first time a Democratic candidate has implicitly advocated pushing the Europeans harder on Iran. The question, of course, is whether this was just a throw-away line for a pro-Israel audience, or whether Obama and his Democratic colleagues will translate it into action.
Indeed, the Democrats may not realize what power they have, even without the presidency, to positively affect foreign policy in this arena. While most of the focus is on whether they will do so by denying funds for the war in Iraq, the possibility for more constructive impact exists with respect to Iran.
If Democratic leaders are serious about Iran, and share - especially since Bush has moved in their direction - the basic approach of the White House, they need to find a way to present a united front to Europe. If European governments get the message that the Democrats, and not just Bush, are pressing for tougher sanctions, and that confronting Teheran now is the best chance to avoid, not to precipitate war, there is still hope that Iran can be peacefully stopped.
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