When it comes to their rhetoric on Iran, there's less distance between the cowboy and the community organizer than you might think.
- 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.
With Super Tuesday in full swing, the Republican presidential candidates are once again distancing themselves from Barack Obama’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. president outlined in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, March 4. Rick Santorum has accused Obama of "appeasement" and turning "his back on the people of Israel," while Mitt Romney has promised to confront the "thugs and tyrants" in Iran with "our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it." But, as the New York Times noted on Tuesday, the muscular rhetoric obscures the many similarities between the policies espoused by Obama and his Republican rivals.
Conventional wisdom holds that Obama couldn’t be more different from his predecessor when it comes to Iran. George W. Bush wouldn’t negotiate with Iran until it suspended its uranium-enrichment process. Obama initially talked about dropping the precondition, though he later compromised on the issue. Bush marveled that "some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Obama vowed to extend a hand "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist." Bush once observed that after decades of sanctions against Iran, "We’re out of sanctions." Obama has staked his Iran strategy on his ability to build international consensus around tougher economic sanctions to put a "world of hurt" on Iranian leaders.
Obama has played up these differences. "When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters," Obama informed AIPAC on March 4. "Iran had gone from zero centrifuges spinning to thousands, without facing broad pushback from the world. In the region, Iran was ascendant — increasingly popular and extending its reach. In other words, the Iranian leadership was united and on the move, and the international community was divided about how to go forward."
But the chasm, in terms of rhetoric and strategy, may not be as wide as you think. For evidence, we invite you to play Foreign Policy‘s favorite new game — Who said it: Bush or Obama?
1. "I have always said that all options are on table, but the first option for the United States is to solve this problem diplomatically. That is why we’ve been pursuing multilateral diplomacy."
Answer 1: George W. Bush
2. "The Iranians and the Syrians are acting irresponsibly inside Iraq. They perceive that it is a way to leverage or impact or weaken us at a time when they’re worried about United States action in a broader context."
Answer 2: Barack Obama
3. "Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance and Iran’s repressive measures, as well as its illicit nuclear program and its support of terror, is well known."
Answer 3: Barack Obama
4. "We need more sanctions. The next step is for the Europeans and the United States and Russia and China to understand that diplomacy only works if there are consequences.… And what the Middle East does not need is a nuclear arms race."
Answer 4: George W. Bush
5. "[Iran’s leaders are] a tough, tough crowd to negotiate with. They’ve got the classic ‘principal-to-non-principal’ negotiating strategy available for them."
Answer 5: George W. Bush
6. "If Iran respects its international obligations and embraces freedom and tolerance, it will have no better friend than the United States of America."
Answer 6: George W. Bush
7. "Iran, Cuba, Venezuela — these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us."
Answer 7: Barack Obama
8. "The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon.… I know here in Washington prevention means force. It doesn’t mean force necessarily. In this case it means diplomacy."
Answer 8: George W. Bush
9. "Iran’s nuclear program — a threat that has the potential to bring together the worst rhetoric about Israel’s destruction with the world’s most dangerous weapons."
Answer 9: Barack Obama
10. "You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."
Answer 10: Barack Obama
11. "This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table."
Answer 11: George W. Bush
12. "We’ve got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel.… So I’ve told people that, if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Answer 12: George W. Bush
13. "Should the Iranian regime — do they have the sovereign right to have civilian nuclear power?… If I were you, that’s what I’d ask me. And the answer is, yes, they do."
Answer 13: George W. Bush
14. "We stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; and we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity."
Answer 14: Barack Obama
15. "Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you, we respect your traditions and your history, and we look forward to the day when you have your freedom.
Answer 15: George W. Bush
So, how did you score?
11-15 correct: Presidential biographer
6-10 correct: Iran desk officer
1-5 correct: Supremely confused
0 correct: Please brush up on our Iran coverage.
Thanks for playing!