Media Should Press GOP Candidates on Iran

by Joel C. Rosenberg

The Iranian threat to U.S. and Israeli national security is a paramount issue facing the American people. A bipartisan poll by Democrat Pat Caddell and Republican John McLaughlin released last month shows that 63 percent of Americans regard Iran as the most serious threat to our country, ahead of China and North Korea. What’s more, 78 percent of Americans believe President Obama’s policies “will fail” when it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Yet CNN’s Anderson Cooper failed to ask a single question about the Islamic Republic at the CNN Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. Why?

Each of the Republican candidates needs to be asked to answer the following questions clearly and directly:

— As president, what specific actions would you take to stop Iran from obtaining and deploying nuclear weapons?
— If you had intelligence that Iran was on the verge of building operational nuclear weapons, would your administration support an Israeli preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities?
— Would you as president seriously consider ordering a preemptive strike by U.S. military forces to neutralize an Iranian nuclear threat?

I am encouraged that the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and CNN have just announced a debate focused on foreign-policy issues on November 15. This is a move in the right direction. Yet one-minute answers and 30-second rebuttals will not suffice. Several of the candidates have made reference to Iran in recent speeches, but they have not laid out their thinking on the subject in detail — and on this issue, specificity is absolutely necessary.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney recently stated, “In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.” He vowed that he would “begin discussions with Israel to increase the level of our military assistance and coordination” and would “reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.” However, he did not specifically discuss how he would stop Iran from getting the Bomb and sponsoring terrorist attacks.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman went further, calling Iran “the transcendent challenge of the next decade.” He signaled support for a U.S. preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying, “I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that.” He, too, spoke of his support of Israel, but he did not lay out any specific principles or policies to deal with Iran, even while calling for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east.

Businessman Herman Cain, who has soared into the top tier of presidential candidates, has identified Iran as one of America’s most serious national-security threats, and has been clear about his strong support for Israel. Drawing on his experience as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Navy working on ballistic-missile projects years ago, Cain has rightly called for enhanced missile defenses to blunt an Iranian nuclear threat. “I would make it a priority to upgrade all of our Aegis surface-to-air ballistic-missile defense capabilities of all of our warships, all the way around the world,” Cain told the Values Voters Summit in D.C. earlier this month. “Make that a priority, and then say to Ahmadinejad, ‘Make my day.’” His instincts are right, but missile defenses alone are insufficient to neutralize the Iranian threat.

Few of the GOP candidates understand the Iranian threat better than former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who comprehends the dangerous end-times theology of the current Iranian leadership. Thus far, however, he has not made an Iran policy a major element of his campaign. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Governor Rick Perry have not discussed the issue in detail, though they certainly seem to understand the dangers — Bachmann and Perry both discussed Iran in last night’s debate, with Bachmann saying that “Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon” is “the number-one issue in the world.”

Rep. Ron Paul, alone among the GOP contenders, doesn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the twin Iranian threats of terrorism and nuclear weapons. “Many are hysterical about the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran,” Rep. Paul has written. “One can understand why they [the mullahs] might want to become nuclear capable if only to defend themselves and to be treated more respectfully. . . . If Iran was attempting to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, they could hardly be blamed, since U.S. foreign policy gives them every incentive to do so.” The congressman opposes economic sanctions on Iran. He opposes U.S. preemptive strikes on Iran. Indeed, Paul has indicated he does not have a problem with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, because he doesn’t think the mullahs in Tehran would actually use such weapons against their enemies. What’s more, he has stated that he would not come to Israel’s defense if Iran fired nuclear weapons at the Jewish state.

Last night’s debate in Nevada was a missed opportunity to press the GOP candidates to explain more fully their approach to Iran. But it is time for the GOP candidates to step up and tell us in more detail how they would handle this most critical of foreign-policy issues.

Joel C. Rosenberg is the author of eight best-selling novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East. His latest political thriller, The Tehran Initiative, was released on Tuesday. He previously served as an aide to U.S. presidential candidate Steve Forbes and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.