Election pap is burying the Iran issue

A couple months ago the question of what to do about the possibility of a nuclear Iran was on the verge of becoming the No. 1 foreign-policy issue in 2008.

Though not exactly eclipsing the Iraq War, Iran’s nuclear program was the focus of attention, with speculation rising as to what, if anything, the United States was prepared to do about the prospect of the radical Islamist theocracy, whose main foreign-policy goal has been to foment terrorism in the Middle East.

Then, in early December, it all went away.

The release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran seemingly put an end to the discussion. By leading with its claim that the Iranians had abandoned their nuclear-weapons program in 2003, the top American spies neatly spiked any chance that an international coalition could be formed to impose tough sanctions on Tehran.

Moreover, by going public in this way, the intelligence apparatus seemed to be signaling that the Bush administration would be stopped from gathering domestic support for a foreign campaign. The NIE ensured that there would be no push against Iran, either diplomatic or military, in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Indeed, it had the potential to deeply influence his successor’s strategies too.

No wonder Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bragged that the NIE was “Iran’s greatest victory in the last 100 years.”

But there was one little problem with the NIE. It was wrong.

Critics of the document (in Israel, Europe and here) pointed out that a close reading of the text showed the rest of the nuclear program was still going full-steam ahead. With their ongoing progress toward nuclear material capability, it wouldn’t require much to take the last step toward a weapon.

If that wasn’t reason enough to worry about the NIE’s conclusion, then surely Iran’s brazen announcement that it had begun to deploy a new generation of machinery to produce nuclear fuel should have set off alarms.

So it was hardly surprising that in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, declared that maybe his agency’s much heralded release wasn’t right, after all. Indeed, McConnell acknowledged to the committee that the NIE’s focus on weapons design was a mistake since he admitted it “was probably the least significant part of the program.” He also confessed that Iran’s uranium enrichment shows that the potential for a nuclear threat is still very real.

It isn’t necessarily too late to undo the damage. But though the release of the NIE led the news everywhere in early December 2007, McConnell’s mea culpa barely registered on the media Richter scale.

That’s unfortunate because it ought to be playing a part in the story that does have the media riveted: the presidential race.

For all of the coverage devoted to the grudge match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (while John McCain awaits the winner), this political season has been more about biography than brass tacks. We are going to have to get beyond the slogans and start talking about the world the winner will face in January 2009.

Attempting to figure out what exactly each would do when they find themselves facing — as each inevitably will some time in the next four years — an Iran on the verge of nuclear capability isn’t easy.

All three say the right things about not tolerating Iranian nukes. All say they will support Israel, the most obvious target of Tehran’s arsenal since its leaders have already marked it for annihilation.

Beyond that, some tactical differences have emerged.

Obama blasted Clinton for supporting a Bush-supported vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

He has also differed from Clinton on his willingness to meet with the Iranians, and any other rogue regime, rather than declare it off-limits, as Bush has done. But Obama has promised that his goal would still be to stop Iran and protect Israel.

That’s left some observers to scratch away at the few kernels of information we have about their foreign-policy predilections, such as the identity of their advisers.

On this score, Obama has taken a hit with former Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as former Clinton administration staffer Robert Malley. Neither are particularly friendly to Israel’s interests.

With McCain, there is a clear difference since he says “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists,” and vows to wage war on them in Iraq and anywhere else. As for Tehran’s nukes, he has joked that his policy is to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys classic hit “Barbara Ann”).

Whether he would actually do so is a matter of speculation, especially given the fact that many of the foreign-policy advisers linked to his campaign, such as Brent Scowcroft, are from the school that shrinks from that sort of assertiveness.

This leaves us with a frustrating lack of information on what is, in all likelihood, the most important decision that the next president will take.

That makes it all the more important that the press and the public begin to press the candidates for specifics about their ideas on this subject. Given the stakes involved, we can’t wait until next year to find out more about their thinking.

Jonathan Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, where this column previously appeared.