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Economy, politics limit ambitions on Iraq, Iran

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'08 ISSUES:

Iraq and Iran will top the foreign policy agenda for the next U.S. president, but the financial crisis and Iraq politics are likely to limit options no matter who wins.

The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has rejected a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, saying any such decision should be based on conditions on the ground. His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has said an early departure would amount to showing "the white flag of surrender."

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee, has called for withdrawing one or two U.S. combat brigades a month over 16 months beginning in January but has promised to leave behind a residual force - of unspecified size - to protect U.S. troops and diplomats and to train Iraqi forces provided the Iraqis make political progress.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the differences between the two candidates are real "but not as big as they used to be because Iraq has changed."

A draft agreement between Iraq and the Bush administration calls for the redeployment of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 30 and the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. About 140,000 U.S. soldiers are serving in Iraq now.

"On Iraq, no matter who wins, the arrows are clear," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The U.S. presence is coming down."

Mr. Obama opposed the Iraq war and has made "ending the war responsibly" a top goal.

"At some point, a judgment must be made," Mr. Obama said in a speech in Washington on July 15. "Iraq is not going to be a perfect place and we don't have unlimited resources to try to make it one." At the same time, he said, the United States "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless going in."

Mr. McCain was an early proponent of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, even before the Bush administration took office. But he began to criticize administration strategy a few months after the invasion, arguing that the number of U.S. forces in Iraq was too small to bring stability to the country. He was a key figure in persuading President Bush to surge U.S. forces into Iraq and has warned that a hasty withdrawal could jeopardize the gains of the past year.

"We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq," Mr. McCain said in a speech in Los Angeles on March 26. "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal."

Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East analyst at the Nixon Center in Washington, said that diminished U.S. financial resources will make it difficult to support more open-ended military operations abroad.

These constraints are important factors regarding Iran as well as Iraq, he said. Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have said that an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable and refused to foreswear the use of force, but neither has said what would trigger military action.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. McCain has been more confrontational toward Tehran and appears more willing to attack Iran if it appears close to acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons.

"There is a fundamental difference in terms of proclivity to use force," Mr. Sadjadpour said.

The Obama campaign has criticized the Bush administration for rebuffing offers from Tehran for comprehensive negotiations in 2003 and promised "tough, direct presidential diplomacy" with "preparations" but not "preconditions."

"When President Bush decided we're not going to talk to Iran ... you know what happened?" Mr. Obama said in the candidates' Oct. 7 debate. "Iran went from zero centrifuges to develop nuclear weapons to 4,000."

Mr. McCain, in turn, has ridiculed Mr. Obama for offering to talk without requiring Iran to suspend uranium enrichment - the current U.S. position.

"What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse,' and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments," Mr. McCain said in the candidates' Sept. 26 debate.

However, in their debate Oct. 7 - after five previous secretaries of state endorsed engagement with Iran - Mr. McCain said he would authorize his secretary of state to talk with Tehran.

No matter who wins, "we're likely to launch a new diplomatic initiative with Tehran," Mr. Haass said.

The Bush administration may improve the climate for talks by asking Iran to allow U.S. diplomats to staff an interests section in Tehran and process visas for Iranians seeking to travel to the United States. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the White House would make the request after the U.S. election. It is not clear how Iran would respond. U.S. diplomats have been absent from Iran since 1979. The U.S. official said he expected protracted bargaining.

At the same time, the administration has intensified economic sanctions against Iran - something both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama also favor.

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiators, said he sees little difference between the candidates.

"Iranians are yearning for a new [U.S.] president who is on the side of the Iranian people and reaches out to them and respects their rights instead of perpetuating the old language of coercive diplomacy," Mr. Afrasiabi said. "Despite expectations that Obama will be better than McCain, his stated intention to toughen sanctions on Iran has dampened those expectations."

About the Author
Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times and the author of a 2007 book on Iran, titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Before joining The Times in July 2008, she was senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. She has accompanied three secretaries of state ...

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