John Edwards’s So-Called Iran Problem

John Edwards gave a talk via satellite to a fairly hawkish bunch meeting in Israel. Some of his remarks are quoted and summarized in the Jerusalem Post and on the conference web site.

Notably, Edwards is reported to have said that Iran is now “the greatest challenge of our generation” and that “Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”

Iran threatens the security of Israel and the entire world. Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. For years, the US hasn’t done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran. As my country stayed on the sidelines, these problems got worse. To a large extent, the US abdicated its responsibility to the Europeans. This was a mistake. The Iranian president’s statements such as his description of the Holocaust as a myth and his goals to wipe Israel off the map indicate that Iran is serious about its threats.

Once Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the Middle East will go nuclear, making Israel’s neighborhood much more volatile.

Iran must know that the world won’t back down. The recent UN resolution ordering Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium was not enough. We need meaningful political and economic sanctions. We have muddled along for far too long. To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table, Let me reiterate – ALL options must remain on the table.

This sort of talk has unsettled some people who you would think are among Edwards's natural supporters. Take, for example, this article in the Nation by Ari Berman entitled, Edwards's Iran Problem. This is actually a mild form of the critique:

Such a provocative speech seems out of character for the ‘08 contender, at least in political terms. As he's moving left on Iraq—-by calling on Congress to deny funding for an escalation of troops and advocating the immediate withdrawal of 50,000 US soldiers—-why is Edwards veering right on Iran?

There's a few possible explanations. One, Edwards sincerely believes in a more confrontational Iran policy. Two, he's pandering to win the support and money of hawkish “pro-Israel” voters and donors. Three, he's trying to impress the foreign policy intelligentsia by talking tough.

No matter the rationale, speeches like these won't help Edwards with Democratic primary voters and could potentially injure his presidential prospects. Preventing a war with Iran is as important as getting out of Iraq to many in the peace movement. Indeed, those goals are now intertwined. Edwards can't have it both ways.

The less-mild form, which is floating around too, calls Edwards a sellout to the NeoCons and lambastes him for not saying at least (1) that Iran is still several years away from getting nukes, so we should all calm down and/or (2) that tactical nuclear weapons should be off the table — on the theory that saying any less, much less “ALL options are on the table” just encourages the current administration's worst tendencies, which include being mad enough to nuke Iranian reactors or the like.1

Personally I don't agree with the “greatest” threat stuff — I'd say that the biggest long-run threat to us is global warming; and the biggest short-run problem is getting out of Iraq without making things worse or betraying those who helped us.

On the other hand, you will find a heck of a lot of national security types, and not just neocons, who think that rogue states with nukes are very very very scary. And

  • if they are theocratic rogue states that have said Israel should be wiped off the face of the map, and
  • if we know for a fact (as we do), that the Israelis will strike first before they allow such a theocratic rogue state to build a nuclear weapon, and
  • that there's probably nothing we can say to stop the Israelis from launching that sort of an, especially at present when the Israeli government is so weak (and when lots of folks in our own Pentagon — and not just the political appointees — probably think it's a good idea), and
  • if we suspect (as we do) that an Israeli attack on Iran would set off a giant mid-east war, during which our oil supply will at best be disrupted and at worst severely damaged for a long time,

well, then you begin to see why this claim that the Iranian push for nukes is a really big dangerous deal is not nearly as nuts as it might sound, and has little to do with the Bushco attempt to provoke an armed conflict. (Should fear of giving comfort to neo-cons cause someone who believes the above to be plausibly dangerous to choose to stay quiet? I don't see how we can expect that. It begins to sound like the neocons telling us to shut up.)

As for the remark that the US has “abdicated its responsibility and had not done enough to stop Iran” I take that to be part of the “Iraq is distracting us from what matters” line that, again, one hears from national security types who haven't drunk the Cheney Kool-Aid. And if one wants a non-military solution with Iran, the only plausible route to that outcome involves solving the Iraq mess ASAP.

Attacking Iran while in Iraq would be madness; doing so after pulling out of Iraq would be only somewhat less mad. But making threatening noises while trying to entice Iran to the bargaining table is just standard diplomacy. (And, if you read all of Edwards's remarksk, that's clearly what he has in mind: “I would not want to say in advance what we would do, and what I would do as president, but there are other steps that need to be taken. Fore example, we need to support direct engagement with Iranians, we need to be tough. But I think it is a mistake strategically to avoid engagement with Iran.”) So this talk by Edwards strikes me as not so radical or odd, but quite mainstream. Not optimal for my taste, but I can't say that these ideas are unreasonable either. Is there a little pandering going on to US Jews as well? Quite probably. But just a little.

1 The talk about tactical nukes derives from a George W. Bush press conference held April 18, 2006:

Q Sir, when you talk about Iran, and you talk about how you have diplomatic efforts, you also say all options are on the table. Does that include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something that your administration will plan for?

THE PRESIDENT: All options are on the table. We want to solve this issue diplomatically and we're working hard to do so. The best way to do so is, therefore, to be a united effort with countries who recognize the danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon. And that's why we're working very closely with countries like France and Germany and Great Britain. I intend, of course, to bring the subject of Iranian ambitions to have a nuclear weapon with Hu Jintao this Thursday. And we'll continue to work diplomatically to get this problem solved.

See also Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker.

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15 Responses to John Edwards’s So-Called Iran Problem

  1. fiat lux says:

    One wonders why it is that any talk of preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons tends to assume that war is the only way to go about it.

    I seem to recall a previous President of the US saying that under no circumstances would Cuba be allowed to have nukes, and achieving that goal without firing a single shot.

  2. Mojo says:

    I’ve been an Edwards supporter since 2003 but he really needs to back off that “we need to keep ALL options on the table” comment or there’s no way I could vote for him.

  3. People are making way too much of Presidential campaign politics that were started way too early. Edwards or anyone else may not be in the running down to the wire. Besides, how often do you hear people complain that elected officials did not adhere to what they said in a campaign, once in office. No matter what a candidate says now, it has little to do with governing or the appearance of governing after elected.
    My favorite relevant example is the first Bill Clinton campaign with the flagship health care proposal. It went nowhere due to reluctance of other politicians to participate on political fears and Clinton’s lack of political capital in term one and beyond. Now it is a big deal again and what is happening? The usual political answers, nothing or the wrong thing.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Attacking Iran while in Iraq would be madness;”

    Naively, one would think that having a large part of your military sitting in a nation bordering on the nation you’re thinking of invading would actually be advantageous. Attacking Iran period might be madness, or it might not, but having troops pre-positioned on Iran’s border hardly makes the attack more mad.

  5. Michael says:

    Naively, one would think that having a large part of your military sitting in a nation bordering on the nation you’re thinking of invading would actually be advantageous. Attacking Iran period might be madness, or it might not, but having troops pre-positioned on Iran’s border hardly makes the attack more mad.

    Yes, that’s pretty naive. If you are losing one war, you don’t usually start another. And the people in history who’ve done that run regimes that are now … historic.

    Also, have you looked at the Iranian order of battle? The size of the land forces? Their air force? Air defenses?

    More enemies shooting at you doesn’t make your life easier.

  6. how says:

    I won’t vote for Edwards after these comments. I certainly won’t vote for Clinton if she wins the nomination. I am supporting Obama all the way! I will have to vote green if we end up w/ a pro war democrat. This madness has got to stop.

  7. michael says:

    I’m curious: on what do you base the hypothesis that Obama and Edwards have different positions on this issue?

    And, on what do you base the belief that a Green vote isn’t in effect a vote for a Republican candidate (you certainly can not be relying historical evidence…)?

  8. how says:

    I think of obama as THE antiwar candidate. Just look at where his support is coming from. I think that he is much more balanced on all middle east issues than beltway washington democrats which i would characterize edwards as. I don’t honestly know much about edwards, but I don’t feel any passion toward him one way or the other to find out too much more anyhow, and after these comments about iran whether or not they were intended to seduce the american jewish community, which actually would turn me off even more as i am waiting someday for somebody to seduce the palestinian american community, i am just left w/ a bad taste. He was part of a losing ticket before, and obama is a fresh charismatic face who taught constitutional law at chicago and has traveled to the middle east and been engaged w/ the issues that matter most internationally. he would be such a great face representing a multicultural america.

    As for Clinton, I just can’t stand her. I would honestly rather see a republican win if she is the democratic nominee. She stands for NOTHING or the things i am against. She makes me think of the miami beach mayor who is the type of person to support her who cheers for jeb bush and still calls himself a democrat. I think of the clinton mafiosos as the types who really made it impossible for kerry to win cuz they were so set on clinton getting her go around.

    Anyhow, clinton messed up big time w/ her views on the war and she can’t be trusted to do the right thing w/ the coming wars. Maybe a republican would even feel an obligation to work twice as hard to clean up the mess created by bush. Look at Crist in FL after jeb bush, he doesn’t seem so bad in some of the things he’s doing now even though I was dead set against him. He is resurrecting the everglades project. I just ordered a bumper sticker w/ the faces of bush vp, then clinton, then bush, then clinton, and ends w/ jeb’s face on this neat sticker site called This country is facing the nightmare scenario of being run by two elite families and anyone not from these families would be a better thing. It has got to end and i think Obama is the only one who stands the chance to stop clinton. I could see edwards and clinton running together which just makes me nauseated.

  9. how says:

    Here is something i cut from dailykos that perhaps shows the differences you are looking for between edwards and obama?

    “The Obama plan offers a responsible yet effective alternative to the President’s failed policy of escalation. Realizing there can be no military solution in Iraq, it focuses instead on reaching a political solution in Iraq, protecting our interests in the region, and bringing this war to a responsible end. The legislation commences redeployment of U.S. forces no later than May 1, 2007 with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, a date that is consistent with the expectation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

    This isn’t a wussy “stop the escalation” measure, nor some half-measure like “withdraw some troops but not all” (which appears to be the Edwards position). And forget Clinton. Who the heck knows what her position is? She’s too busy trying to look “responsible” to give us an unambiguous position on Iraq. Of course, it helps that Obama is the only top-tier candidate to have opposed the war from the beginning…

  10. how says:

    but 4 iran, on i read that obama said: “[L]aunching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in” given the ongoing war in Iraq. “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.” Obama went on to argue that military strikes on Pakistan should not be ruled out if “violent Islamic extremists” were to “take over.”

    so maybe obama and edwards are close to each other on iran… but i like obama better on iraq and therefore would trust him to do a better job on iran.

  11. michael says:

    Here’s Edwards’s position — is it so different from Obama’s?

    In one of the strongest statements by a major political figure, former Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina has declared that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq in two stages:

    The former senator from North Carolina told reporters America should “make it clear (to Iraqis) we are leaving, and the best way is to start leaving. We should take 40,000 combat troops out now.”

    Edwards, who has said he regretted his vote as a U.S. senator authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, said he would ask the country’s military leaders for a strategy “to have the (rest of the) troops out in roughly 12 to 18 months.”

  12. aidan says:

    It’s hard not to be cynical on Edward’s positioning on Iran. Even among the most left, green partial candidates, there is the unmovable conviction that to in order to be elected in the US, you have to be seen to be tough – on something. Tough on the environment, tough on crime … but most critically tough vis-a-vis countries that have acquired a rep of being anti-US. Being tough seems to be a token of credibility. People appear to need to know that you can kick ass anywhere, any time, even if you do come off as a wuss.

    Ahmadinejad isn’t flying as high these days. There are moderating forces at work in Iran that make Edwards’ posture seemingly daring, but actually rather safe. It’s a feint that has more to do with image than substance. Yes Iranian agents have been a subversive factor in Iraq, and that nation has acquired a new ascendancy of sorts in the region with the removal of old enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Iranians who aren’t messianic Mahdi nuts like Mahmoud understand that there is a potential to be deeply f’ed if they push their luck. We’re not talking about a straw man of course, there is an inherent threat there for sure, but Iran isn’t Iraq – it’s a platform where guys like Edwards can flex and look strong, resolute, while action remains a hypothetical.

    Is there a third way? I wish there was. Surely to God there is some other way of doing business in this world. So long as the tough guy protocol has legs we’re going to get more of the same. Only next time – Iraq might seem like a picnic.

  13. Dons Blog says:

    Seeing that Iran is surrounded by nuclear weapons in Pakistan, Israel, and Turkey, as well as US incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe a general de-escalation would be a better idea than threatening Iran.

    It seems to be a tradition for candidates of both sides to go before AIPAC or some Israeli group and promise support. This is popular with all kinds of groups from Florida retirees to conservative evangelicals, left and right. But at some point it would be nice to put peace first.


    Why the panties in a twist over Iran and nukes and not over Pakistan and nukes?? Pakistan is more of a failed state than Iran and has a lot more crazies running around loose.

  15. Iranians believe they are under the instruction and protection of God…there is no doubt that radical Islamists *would not sleep* until they detonate a nuclear device in America or against other non Islamic believers…more proof is that the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

    Once Iran gets their hands on nuclear weapons and the delivery system, everyone in the Middle East will want one. It will be a completely new ballgame and a very dangerous one. If the world looks away from this, it will be a very tough awakening.

    What more obvious reasons do you want?! They must be stopped from acquiring nuclear technology, at any costs.

    Knowledge yourself people get your news from more than one place! Thats what the internet is here for! Some helpful links:,,,

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