It’s no surprise that this week’s Republican presidential debate in Arizona was a Wild West shootout. The candidates unloaded on each other, on President Barack Obama and, among others things, on Iran. As Iran becomes a top foreign policy topic in the election season, it is worth noting the positions of the various candidates.
So how did they do? First off, we should cut the candidates a break. The Republican Four are not Iran experts and should not be held to that standard. Second, this campaign — like others in the past — has had its share of attacks and counterattacks where facts are often stretched or ignored. With that in mind, the candidates’ performances were not as bad as they could have been.
Ron Paul did the best job in saying things that were factual. He is right that the Soviet Union was one of the most brutal regimes in human history. The Soviets had nuclear weapons, and we talked to them — and that turned out to be a good thing. He is also correct in saying that when a country is threatened, its hardliners often gain strength because of a “rally around the flag” effect; i.e., even those people who may not agree with the leadership feel the need to offer support. His implied claim that sanctions always fail is a little shakier. Sometimes they work (think South Africa and the Libya nuclear deal), sometimes they don’t. Sanctions are a tool, a means toward an end to be used in combination with other policy tools, including negotiation. They are not, nor are they designed to be, a magic wand.
Rick Santorum suggested that the way to deal with the Iran is by supporting pro-American Iranians and the Greens opposition movement to oust the government in Tehran. The only problem is that Iranians who oppose the government nevertheless support a civilian nuclear program. In fact, a top leader of the Greens opposition even criticized Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for being too soft on the nuclear issue.
Perhaps the most bizarre answer on Iran came from Mitt Romney. His chief concern? Iran will give enriched uranium to Hezbollah or Hamas, who would then travel to Latin America and then maybe on to the U.S. to detonate a dirty bomb. First, nuclear weapons and dirty bombs are fundamentally different things, like the difference between a shotgun blast to the head and a slap on the wrist. Second, the data here is clear. Governments, especially paranoid ones, don’t just hand off nuclear material to some wacky third party, if only because they fear the wacky group will use it against them if relations sour. Enriched uranium is also a terrible material for building a dirty bomb. Finally, Iran has for decades had plenty of dirty bomb material it could use for such an attack. And yet it hasn’t happened.
If Romney gave the most puzzling answer, it was Newt Gingrich who gave the most troubling response. Gingrich argued for military strikes against Iran, maintaining that Ahmadinejad is a dictator who would use nuclear weapons against Israel.
Let’s set aside the fact that there have been many dictators in the world, but none have engaged in nuclear suicide. Let’s also generously ignore the fact that Gingrich publicly dismissed the views of the highest-ranking uniformed officer serving in the U.S. military as well as the country’s top intelligence official. The real problem here is that he has his facts wrong. Ahmadinejad is not the leader of Iran; the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is.
Actually, Ahmadinejad is now little more than a figurehead. Last spring, the debate in Tehran was whether Ahmadinejad would be arrested (several in his outer circle have been arrested) or allowed to serve out his lame-duck term. And most recently, Ahmadinejad’s followers have been systematically knocked off the ballot in the legislative election scheduled for March. Ahmadinejad is not a political lame duck. He’s closer to a dead duck and has been for some time.
All in all, the Republican presidential hopefuls did not do horribly. Still, on issues of war and peace, where the lives of American servicemen and servicewomen and their families hang in the balance, we should expect those who would be president — Republicans and Democrats alike — to stand more firmly with the facts.
Note: Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.