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Even as Senator John Kerry suggests that better diplomacy could have kept America out of war in Iraq, his advisers are warning that the Democrat could wind up ordering military intervention against another Middle Eastern power: Iran.

“John Kerry has been crystal clear that a nuclear Iran is intolerable to the U.S.,” the head of the Democratic candidate’s Middle East task force, former California congressman Mel Levine, told the Forward. “He would not rule out the use of force [to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons]. Obviously, force should be the last resort here, but if Iran refused to do what the entire international community wanted and what the U.S. needs from Iran, no options would be removed from the table.”

Levine’s comments echoed those of another top Kerry foreign policy adviser, former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke. On September 23, Holbrooke told Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that “there is no way the United States can allow the Iranians to go nuclear, and I don’t think the Israelis will allow it either.”

“You cannot rule out the fact that military force may be used, and it is rather significant that the United States is now selling Israel over $300 million worth of bunker busting bombs,” Holbrooke said, referring to a recent news report on a pending U.S. arms sale to Israel. “They don’t need those for the Palestinians.”

The tough talk comes as Kerry seeks to walk a tightrope with his base. He hopes to attract centrist voters who believe the Iraq war was a mistake because it diverted attention from a more aggresive war on terrorism, without alienating the antiwar elements of the Democratic Party. Some traditional liberals have become increasingly resistant to U.S. military intervention.

With the first presidential debate, focusing on foreign policy, set to take place Thursday night, the issue of Iran may take on greater prominence in the campaign.

Asked to flesh out Kerry’s position, Levine said the candidate supports the sale of the bunker-buster bombs to Israel. Levine said he did not want to speculate about what Jerusalem might do about Iran’s nuclear threat, but said: “Israel has made it very clear it looks to the United States for leadership on this issue.”

Levine and Holbrooke each appeared to sound a more hawkish note on Iran than the one struck by the Democrat vice presidential nominee, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. In a August interview, Edwards called for a dialogue with Iran, offering it help on its nuclear energy aims in return for verifiable assurances that its nuclear program remains focused on peaceful purposes. That stance drew the fire of hawks, including Senator John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, who charged that Iran would flout any American strictures.

At the same time, Democrats are criticizing Bush on the issue.

Noting that Bush did not say a word about Iran during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, Levine accused the president of failing to address the issue adequately

“This is an administration that has denigrated the notion of seeking help from our traditional European allies,” Levine said. “While this administration was obsessed with Iraq, Iran and North Korea became much more dangerous. Iran is a charter member of the state-sponsored terrorism club and has made it quite clear it is developing a nuclear weapon and a delivery capability. This administration has sat on the sidelines.”

The administration, for its part, has taken pains to stress that international diplomatic efforts constitute the preferred method for dissuading Iran from using its reactors to make nuclear weapons. President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told CNN earlier this month that “we believe that this is something that is best resolved by diplomatic means, and that can be resolved by diplomatic means.” Underscoring the point during a recent trip to Jerusalem, Bush’s top official on nuclear nonproliferation, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, said the president was “determined to try and find a peaceful and diplomatic solution” to the Iranian problem.

This week, however, Newsweek reported that the CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency have conducted war games to calculate the cost of the likely consequences of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The magazine reported that the agencies were not satisfied with the outcome, which showed that such a move would only lead to an escalating conflict.

Democratic hawks were undeterred. Whatever the cost, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, “Iran cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons. Period. Not this regime.” Nadler described Iran as a “mortal threat to the United States and Israel.”

Even so, Nadler said, he advocates what he called “carrot and stick” engagement with the Iranians.

Knocking out Iran’s reactors “is not that simple” a step because they’re dispersed and hardened targets and many of them are “hot,” which could lead to a Chernobyl-like meltdown, Nadler said.

“That’s another reason I was opposed to the war in Iraq,” Nadler said. Saddam Hussein was “a fascist thug,” but he “could be contained.”

The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq makes it look like we “cried wolf,” Nadler said. “The question is: Was it worth it, the loss of credibility against a real nuclear threat?”

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