This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Republican presidential candidates pledged on Thursday that their prospective administrations would use sanctions and other means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon (see GSN, August 11).
"Iran is the central issue in the Middle East and their capacity to become a nuclear power. They are one of the four state sponsors of terror in the world," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said during the eight-person GOP primary debate at Iowa State University. "I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. I can't reveal classified information, but I can say this: As president of the United States, I will do everything to make sure that Iran does not become a nuclear power."
That view was echoed by fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty.
"As to Iran, I believe we should undertake every plausible step to deny their intentions and their plans to get a nuclear weapon. That will include sanctions," said the former governor, who earlier in the evening misidentified retiring U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen as a general.
"That will include some of the good work with some of the scientists on their way to work in Iran. That will see—you see some of the good work that you saw with the computer virus. But in the end, we should take every plausible step to deny that intention," Pawlenty added, apparently referring to the deaths of as many as three Iranian atomic scientists in targeted killings since the beginning of last year and to the Stuxnet computer worm believed to have caused Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges to malfunction in 2009 (see GSN, August 2).
The United States and other Western powers have long suspected Iran's nuclear program is geared toward weapons development, despite Tehran's assertion that the initiative is intended only for civilian purposes.
Iran has culled enough low-enriched uranium to produce fuel for roughly four nuclear weapons, if the material was further refined, according to atomic experts (see GSN, August 4). Tehran in June unveiled plans to move its manufacturing of 20 percent-enriched uranium from Natanz to a subterranean site in Qum and to increase the pace of production by roughly threefold. The greater enrichment level could help the Middle East nation to produce weapon-grade material, which must be refined to around 90 percent.
To date, Iran has been hit with four U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions aimed at ensuring the peaceful nature of the nation's atomic program.
Businessman Herman Cain couched efforts to stop Tehran's suspected push for an atomic weapon in terms of energy independence from Middle East oil.
"I believe that our energy strategy is directly related to national security, as well as stopping Iran in their efforts," he said. "That being said, there's more to foreign policy than bombs and bullets. There's bombs and bullets and economics. If we get serious about maximizing all of our energy resources in this country, we can become a player on the world market. As the price of oil goes down, it puts an economic squeeze on Iran."
However, retiring Rep. Ron Paul argued that the nuclear threat posed by Iran has been exaggerated over time. "Even our own CIA gives me this information that they have no evidence that they're working on a weapon."
"Just think of how many nuclear weapons surround Iran. The Chinese are there. The Indians are there. The Pakistanis are there. The Israelis are there. The United States is there. All these countries ... why wouldn't it be natural if they might want a weapon? Internationally, they might be given more respect," the Texas lawmaker said.
Paul noted that President Reagan negotiated with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War.
He also questioned the value of sanctions against Iran.
"That makes it much worse," he said. "Why would that be so strange if the Soviets and the Chinese had nuclear weapons, we tolerated the Soviets. We didn't attack them. And they were a much greater danger. They were the greatest danger to us in our whole history. But you don't go to war against them."
The self-proclaimed Libertarian's analysis did not sit well with former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who authored the Iran Freedom Support Act, a sanctions bill against Tehran, while in Congress.
"Iran is not Iceland, Ron. Iran is a country that has been at war with us since 1979. Iran is a country that has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and the ... Afghanistanis have," said Santorum, who later cited Tehran's alleged financial support for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Paul countered that trouble between Washington and Tehran began in 1953 when the CIA helped to overthrow the Middle Eastern nation's democratically elected government and reinstalled the shah.
"It's been going on and on because we just plain don't mind our own business. That's our problem," Paul said.
The Ames, Iowa, GOP straw poll is scheduled for Saturday. The event, though nonbinding, is considered the first test of a candidate's organizational strength in the Hawkeye State and can help build momentum before the early 2012 caucus.