Denver — As Democrats work to shore up support of Jewish voters, and Republicans do all they can to tear it down, Iran is emerging as a pivotal foreign policy issue in the presidential campaign, and an indirect test by many Jews of the candidates’ full commitment to Israel’s security.
Senator Barack Obama’s campaign has been struggling to clarify its policy toward Iran and to elaborate on Obama’s call for engaging in negotiations with the government in Tehran. Seeking to drive a wedge between the Illinois Democrat and the Jewish community, GOP Senator John McCain unveiled a new television ad asserting that Obama does not grasp the danger Iran poses to Israel — a point that the Obama campaign vigorously disputes.
“The problem is that in a debate, over a year ago, there was this one little snippet about engaging Iran, and that needed some explanation,” U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Forward at the sidelines of the Democratic convention. But Berman says that Jewish voters are responding positively to Obama’s Iran policy when it is presented in the broader context of diplomacy, sanctions and international pressure.
The latest round of political attacks and counterattacks underscores the centrality of Iran in the foreign policy debate. It’s a topic of repeated conversation within the Obama campaign, sources say. The issue was also raised in meetings Obama held with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem in July. An Israeli diplomatic official said that the dialogue with Obama and his team helped “straighten out” any concerns that “some may have had about his views on Iran.”
Still, Iran was on the minds of Jewish and pro-Israel activists gathered here. Convention participants were bombarded with TV ads sponsored by The Israel Project, a pro-Israel Washington-based group providing public information about Israel, depicting the danger posed by Iran. A poll the group conducted found that a majority of Americans see Iran as a threat and that six out of 10 Americans believe there is an opportunity to stop Iran by using diplomacy. The poll was conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters over recent weeks and compared views toward Iran in the United States, Britain and Germany.
Greg Craig, Obama’s senior national security adviser, was grilled on this issue during a panel discussion on Middle East policy, but said he could offer few specifics right now.
“How do you engage? What kind of preparation needs to take place? That has yet to be decided,” Craig said at an August 27 briefing sponsored by the liberal-leaning New America Foundation. Craig made clear that “it does not have to be president to president. He does not have to meet with [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad on the Wednesday after the inauguration.”
Former congressman Mel Levine, who co-chairs Obama’s Jewish outreach team in Los Angeles, argued that starting with engagement makes the possibility of imposing sanctions later an easier task. “His approach says, we will work with you if you change your policy, but if not, we will take all measures,” Levine said.
At a campaign stop on August 25, Obama himself said his job as president will be “tightening the screws diplomatically on Iran” and getting sanctions in place as soon as possible. “We’ve got to do that before Israel feels like its back is to the wall,” the candidate said.
Campaign officials insisted that Obama’s tough rhetoric on Iran represents not a shift in attitude but a broader presentation of his approach. They say Obama views a parallel-track approach toward Iran, in which engagement, sanctions and divestment are used together to persuade the government in Tehran to change its policy, before moving to tougher actions.
Meantime, a new McCain ad, released August 27, quotes phrases from Obama’s May 18 campaign speech in Oregon, where he said Iran “doesn’t pose a serious threat.” As pictures go from Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to armed soldiers and finally to a bird’s eye view of Jerusalem, the narrator asks: ”Terrorism? Destroying Israel? Those aren’t serious threats?” and then concludes: “Obama. Dangerously unprepared to be president.”
An Obama campaign spokesman accused McCain of distortion, saying that the quotes were taken out of context in an attempt by the Republicans to “cover up the fact that Iran has benefited from the Iraq War,” which McCain supports.
Iran was also the focus of the Republican criticism of Obama’s choice for vice president, Senator Joseph Biden. Statements published by the Republican Jewish Coalition pointed to Biden’s refusal to support a 2007 resolution calling for designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terror group and a 1998 bill requiring action against firms supplying Iran with missile technology.
“The Democrats’ ticket has now become an even greater gamble for the Jewish community” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman