Rick Santorum says he's been studying Iran for a decade. But does he know what he's talking about?
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Rick Santorum, who wrested some momentum from Mitt Romney this week by winning primary contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, likes to cast himself as something of an expert on Iran, which has arguably become the top foreign-policy issue in the campaign. From making clear that he’d take care of Iran’s nuclear problem if Tehran refuses to do so to warning of jihadists lurking in the Gulf of Mexico — he’s not shy about his obsession with the Iranian threat, or his hawkish stance.
In a November radio ad, for example, the Republican presidential contender asserted that he was the only GOP candidate discussing the Iranian threat. “Even Newt Gingrich said ‘no one has done more than Santorum to alert America to the dangers posed by Iran,'” the narrator crowed. Santorum’s campaign website boasts that he “has recognized the looming threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions for nearly a decade — standing tall against both Republicans and Democrats who have discounted and dismissed the reality that this radical theocracy is intent on destroying Israel and Western civilization.” Forget “nearly a decade” — in Iowa, he told voters, “I spent ten years focused like a laser beam when I was in the Senate on the country of Iran.”
There may be no better window into Santorum’s views on Iran than his writings as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) — a position he held between losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006 and entering the presidential race in June 2011. He joined the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, which aims to apply the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy,” back in 2007 to establish and direct the “America’s Enemies” program — an initiative that, unlike America’s adversaries, folded after Santorum’s departure, according to the EPPC. And, for Santorum, Iran was Public Enemy No. 1. “I know that I’m not the foremost scholar in the world, but I can offer a lot of ideas,” he told National Review as he settled in at the think tank.
So, just what were those ideas, and how do they compare to Santorum’s rhetoric on the campaign trail today? Under the disquieting rubric “The Gathering Storm,” Santorum penned roughly 40 articles on Iran during his EPPC stint, scrupulously aggregating news and commentary to paint a picture of the multidimensional Iranian threat facing the United States. Here’s a look at some of what Santorum had to say on the subject, in between posts on Latin American Regression, Extradition, and Alligators and Religious Freedom: A Pluralist Street with No Address in Saudi Arabia.
THE NUCLEAR THREAT
Expressing no doubts about Iran’s determination to build nuclear weapons, Santorum described Iran as an existential threat to America’s ally, Israel — an enemy “well on its way to achieving nuclear capability as it also straddles a long track record of supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.”
But early last year, Santorum warned that the United States itself could be vulnerable to an Iranian electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack — a scenario in which a nuclear weapon is detonated above the United States, knocking out electricity and communication technologies across the country (the New York Times has noted, however, that many nuclear experts dismiss the threat). “An EMP attack would require only one nuclear missile detonation to bring our nation to its knees,” Santorum warned, citing similar concerns voiced by former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). “Whether by using EMP or other [weapons of mass destruction], Americans are still constantly under the threat of terrorism.”
If anything, Santorum has adopted even more of a doomsday approach on the campaign trail, telling voters in Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina that they would not be safe in their states if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon. He says a Santorum administration would authorize more research on EMP threats and develop a plan to prevent “severe terrestrial and space emergencies that would take down our information systems or electrical grids” (Newt Gingrich has issued dire warnings about an EMP attack as well).
During his time at the EPPC, Santorum also worried that an emboldened Iran could tamper with the global energy supply in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, or Suez Canal. “It is becoming increasingly clear that Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a bargaining chip but a core component of the regime’s stability,” he observed in 2007 when discussing a threat by Iranian leaders to use oil as a weapon. Iran, he added, wants to “dominate the region and to challenge the West without fear of retribution.”
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OBAMA’S IRAN STRATEGY
Santorum didn’t give Obama much of a honeymoon on Iran, noting in the spring of 2009 that Iran’s advances toward a nuclear weapon made it “no time for an audacity of hope to reign supreme” in the White House. A hard line, he argued, was necessary right off the bat.
In June 2010, he reacted angrily to a new round of U.S. sanctions against Iran:
The Obama Administration’s inept support of the opposition Green Movement in Iran, its complicity in the weak sanctions and their even weaker implementation through the U.N., and its lack of a Plan B despite nearly 16 months of diplomatic action that have yielded no significant results, is setting us on a path where Iran will likely become a top regional power with the additional leverage of nuclear weapons, which will accelerate Iran’s ability to sponsor terrorism and Islamic extremism around the world.
Several months later, he lamented what two years of U.S. engagement with Iran had wrought. Iran, he noted, was courting Afghan President Hamid Karzai with sacks of cash (“and President Obama is worried about the influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the U.S. election?” he marveled), paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers, supporting the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, deepening commercial ties with Venezuela, and beginning to fuel its Bushehr nuclear power plant. Since, Santorum only has stepped up his rhetoric as a candidate, calling Obama’s Iran policy a “colossal failure.”
Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
SANTORUM’S IRAN STRATEGY
In 2004, while serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Santorum authored legislation to support democracy movements in Iran and impose sanctions on the regime. During a reelection campaign in 2006 — the year the bill passed — Santorum declared that America was at war not with terrorism, which he labeled a “tactic,” but rather with an “Islamic fascist movement” led by Iran. He stopped short of threatening a military strike on Iran, however, advocating the measures in his bill instead.
Yet while Santorum’s EPPC posts reflect a continued fixation on human rights in Iran (he writes about Iran’s persecution of religion minorities and arrests of women’s rights activists, and compares Iran to the Taliban for stoning adulterers), they also reveal skepticism about the power of sanctions to stall Iran’s nuclear program.
When protests, pictured above, erupted in Iran in June 2009 following a disputed presidential election, Santorum was positively giddy. “What is now indisputable on either side [of the Iran debate] is the state to which the ‘structural underpinnings of the entire Islamic approach to modern political self-rule’ are crumbling,” he declared, quoting a New York Times op-ed. Santorum made it clear that he sided “with those who would help the courageous Iranian people overturn a nasty government that has denied them their rights, betrayed their confidence, and humiliated them in almost every conceivable way since June 12.” (A year earlier, Santorum had criticized the media for referring to Iranian hard-liners as “conservatives” — “as if conservatism is about imposing theocracy and depriving people of freedom.”)
Later that year, Santorum praised a Washington Post column by Anne Applebaum arguing that the United States should confront Iran not with sanctions or military force but rather with a human rights campaign that involved funding dissident exile groups, flooding Iranian airwaves with anti-regime programming, and publicizing the Iranian government’s crimes. But he sounded a note of caution. “My fear is that we’re too late. Precipice point is an unpleasant place, and it’s dangerously too bad that we waited until now to think hard about human rights, regime change, and velvet revolutions in Iran.”
Santorum seems to have come around to this view as a candidate. While he still wants to fund pro-democracy groups and impose tough sanctions on Iran, he’s now much more amenable to a military response. He thinks an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities may be inevitable and has pledged his support, even threatening that, if president, he’ll authorize the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program himself if Tehran refuses to dismantle it. He also wants to treat scientists working for Iran’s nuclear program as enemy combatants who could be targeted for assassination.
Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
IRAN AND LATIN AMERICA
When Santorum isn’t talking about Iran, he’s typically discussing Latin America. And often he’s holding forth on both (the picture above shows Santorum with the son of Iran’s ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi during a 2006 news conference about Tehran’s increasing ties with Latin America).
In his EPPC posts, Santorum repeatedly raises concerns about Iran’s creeping influence among leftist, anti-American Latin American leaders. He’s got a long list of worries: that Iran is receiving gasoline and uranium from Venezuela and dispatching its elite Qods Force to work with Venezuelan authorities; making investments in Nicaragua; partnering with Bolivia to launch a Spanish-language television station; and helping Islamic extremists and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia groups gain a foothold in Latin America for recruitment and narcotics smuggling (analysts and U.S. officials disagree about how serious a threat Iranian-supported militant groups pose in the region).
Washington “lacks a creative vision to isolate and weaken the ‘anti-imperialist alliances’ between those independent Latin American countries and the boiling Islamic Republic,” Santorum wrote in 2008. He’s sounded similar alarms on the campaign, noting during a debate in Florida that “there is a growing network of folks [in Latin America] now working with the jihadists, the Iranians, who are very excited about the opportunity of having platforms 90 miles off our coast, just like the Soviets were.” (In a column last fall, Santorum said the critical difference between Iran and the Soviet Union is that “Russia was an atheistic enemy who didn’t believe in an afterlife” while the “Islamists ruling Iran view dying for its cause will be rewarded in the afterlife,” thus rendering the concept of mutually assured destruction meaningless.)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
IRAN AND THE ARAB SPRING
Shortly before launching his presidential campaign, Santorum viewed Iran’s decision to rhetorically support many of the Arab Spring uprisings and cast them as Islamic revolutions with trepidation:
As always, America needs to keep a watchful eye on Iran — especially the growing alliances between key Muslim countries. While democracy is generally good, these “democratic revolutions” could easily turn sour and ultimately lead to the caliphate; so “beware the revolutions.” The administration must wake up to who the enemy is — recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood as such, for instance — and that the U.S. cannot continue with fickle friendships. That is how gathering storms precipitate.
While campaigning, Santorum attacked Obama for not supporting “a real Arab Spring starting in 2009 with the protests in Iran,” though the media was quick to point out that Iran is not an Arab country.
Santorum may be the most vocal and hard-line critic of Iran in the Republican field, but Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are giving him a run for his money, during an election season in which candidates on both sides of the aisle have ratcheted up their rhetoric against Iran. In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared that the United States would “take no options off the table” in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — diplomatic code for not ruling out military force. The true test, of course, comes the day after the election, when the victor decides whether to make good on his campaign promises.
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