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Crisis Over Iran Poses Political Headaches For Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

With American-Iranian tensions mounting, Democratic presidential contenders are facing a daunting political challenge: how to speak out against Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in a way that appeals to pro-Israel supporters without alienating the party’s overwhelmingly anti-war rank and file.

The political tightrope has been on prominent display in recent weeks, as liberal insiders denounced former senator John Edwards, a prominent critic of the war in Iraq, for his hawkish address before an Israeli security forum. At the same time, Jewish communal leaders have criticized former general Wesley Clark for implying that pro-Israel activists were pushing the Bush administration toward confrontation with Iran.

Edwards’s speech, delivered via satellite to the high-powered Herzliya Conference on January 22, seemed designed to convey unwavering resolve without committing to any particular course of action that might come back to haunt his campaign or a future presidency. “Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons,” Edwards insisted. “As to what we should do,” he said in response to a question, “we should not take anything off the table… I would not want to say in advance what we would do, and what I would do as president.”

Clark landed in hot water in early January when he reportedly told liberal blogger Arianna Huffington that he feared Bush might strike against Iran. “The Jewish community is divided, but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers,” he said, according to Huffington. Clark later wrote in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League insisting that he rejected any antisemitic conspiracies, and explaining that he backed dialogue with Tehran, while keeping the military option on the table.

Both recent tussles, several Democratic insiders told the Forward, demonstrate the pressures driving Democratic contenders to calibrate carefully their public statements on Iran as they aim to please an array of constituencies that includes hawkish pro-Israel donors; the party’s liberal, anti-war base, and, ultimately, general election voters, who must envision candidates in the role of commander in chief.

“It’s so awkward for Democrats on an issue like Iran,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist who served in the Clinton administration and is backing Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race. “I can’t believe that there’s a Democratic presidential candidate who wants to go to war… but especially for Democrats — and especially, regretably, for a woman Democrat or Democrats without a lot of experience — there is a very tough foreign policy, national security, military threshold that they have to meet in order to be deemed qualified by the electorate.”

Like Edwards, Senator Clinton has recently echoed the alarm that some Jewish constituencies are voicing over Iran. Last December, she sent a letter to be read at a press conference, held by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in response to Tehran’s Holocaust denial conference. “We cannot and should not — must not — permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons,” the letter concluded. This week, on Thursday, Clinton was slated to deliver the keynote address at the Northeast regional dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Other contenders have recently spoken out against any rush to widen the Iraq War through a confrontation with Iran. Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who opposed the 2002 resolution granting President Bush the right to use force in Iraq, has rebuked the administration in recent days over the escalation of fighting with Iranian operatives. So has the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, who has long spoken out about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Like Edwards and Clinton, Biden backed the 2002 resolution but went on to become a vocal critic of the administration’s conduct of the war.

Some observers said that of all the candidates in the packed Democratic field, Edwards may have the trickiest time navigating the Iran issue, given his agressive efforts to portray himself as the staunchest opponent of the Iraq war. The tension was on display following the former senator and vice presidential candidate’s speech to the Herzliya Conference, when leading liberal blogger Matt Stoller lambasted Edwards in a Web posting titled, “John Edwards in 2011: ‘I’m Sorry for My Vote on Iran.’”

“Why should we trust a man who sold us out on the war vote?” Stoller asked in the January 24 blog entry. “I mean it’s a really bad idea to pretend like attacking Iran is a viable option. It’s not. It’s a horrible, horrible idea, and it’s what we shouldn’t let Edwards get away with.”

In contrast, Mark Rotenberg, a prominent Minnesota Democratic whose wife, Amy, chairs the state’s Aipac chapter, said he was worried that, down the road, Democratic contenders “may get weak in the knees when it comes to standing up to Iran, because of the confusion and disappointment that has surrounded our failed policy in Iraq.” He added, “I don’t think it’s a problem with John Edwards, [and] I certainly don’t think it’s a problem in terms of Senator Clinton.”

Donna Bojarsky, a prominent public policy consultant in Los Angeles who advises actor Richard Dreyfuss and other Hollywood Democrats, cautioned against generalizations that paint Jewish political donors as monolithically in favor of stopping a nuclear Iran by military force. “Everyone agrees Iran is a real threat,” Bojarsky said in an interview with the Forward. “[But] I think there’s a variety of views about how you deal with it. [Going to war] is not the Jewish position; it’s not even the New York Jewish money position.”

Indeed, some Jewish donors who cite Iran as a top concern are, nonetheless, far from ready to hear that war is inevitable.

“I’m sure that John Edwards would first try to exhaust all diplomatic means possible before committing U.S. troops,” said Marc Stanley, a Texas Democrat who serves on the campaign’s finance committee. Stanley, who also serves as the first vice chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council, stressed that he spoke for himself only. When asked about the basis of his support for Edwards, he first cited the former senator’s focus on poverty in America, which he said he considered a “very Jewish” issue, and then noted Edwards’s support for Israel.

Looking ahead, several political insiders said they expected both parties’ presidential candidates to remain in lock-step on the need to prevent a nuclear Iran — and consistently mum on if, how and when they would be willing to take military action.

“To tell you the truth, I think across the board everyone is saying exactly the same thing,” said New Yorker Cheryl Fishbein, an attendee at the Herzliya Conference who asked Edwards if he was prepared to take military action and how he would sell a strike to the American public. “They’re saying that we cannot allow Iran to go nuclear… [but] when you start to ask the question, ‘Well, does that mean military [action]?’ nobody wants to say yes, because at this point the idea of going military is very frightening to everybody. Nobody wants that.”

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