Iranian dispute dividing Senate

The Senate ended this week divided along partisan lines over U.S. policy regarding Iran’s disputed election, with Democrats defending President Obama’s hands-off approach and Republicans arguing the U.S. should step into the controversy.

The dispute was marked by a round of high-profile media appearances by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday, which was followed by Friday’s 405-1 House vote in favor of a resolution supporting Iranian dissidents.

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Iran has been wracked by demonstrations protesting the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with many suggesting the vote was rigged. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Friday defended Ahmadinejad’s victory and warned of repercussions if protests continue.

Kerry stirred Senate debate with an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times criticizing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for suggesting Obama’s response to the Iranian protests has been “tepid” and that the U.S. should speak out more forcefully. Following that up with interviews on CNN and MSNBC, Kerry said wading into the controversy would only allow hard-line leaders to rally the population against the U.S.

“If we actually want to empower the Iranian people, we have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us,” Kerry wrote in the Times. “We can’t escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran’s election must be about Iran — not America.”

McCain himself would not comment, telling The Hill that he had not read Kerry’s editorial. But Republicans lined up en masse to defend him, and Democrats likewise defended Obama’s diplomatic approach.

“The appropriate response to brutal suppression of dissidents in Iran is not silence,” said GOP Sen. John Cornyn (Texas). “We need to show some strength. Just playing nice and hoping that somehow we’re going to persuade them to stop their terrorist acts strikes me as naïve.”

“We should be involved actively,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

“We have to figure out a way to engage the moderates in Iran and somehow get around the leadership which is very much bent on being a nuclear power and denying human rights,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.).

But Democrats back the Obama-Kerry approach, saying that Ahmadinejad would relish the opportunity to paint the U.S. as meddling and rally the country around him.

“The last thing we should do is stick our noses in Iran’s election situation,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “It would be the worst possible thing we could do. And I should remind you that Sen. McCain was one of the biggest proponents of the Iraqi War. Look what a debacle that was. So I don’t think he has much credibility on this.”

“If you become too overly aggressive, you can hurt the cause of the reformers if it appears they’re being manipulated,” said Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “They have a greater chance of success if its their reforms and their efforts that produce the results. The opposition would love nothing more than to say the reformers are a tool of the U.S.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) took the opportunity to note that no less a conservative voice than commentator Pat Buchanan has sided with Obama’s non-interventionist approach.

“It’s an ironic moment in history when I say I agree with Pat Buchanan, but I agree with Pat Buchanan,” McCaskill said. “The president is being very smart and strategic here. Sometimes it’s more important to use a velvet glove than to pound your chest and in this instance the reformers are going to be more effective if no one senses they’re being driven by the west.”

Much of the debate between the two parties centers on the opportunity that the protests represent. Republicans, for example, said the U.S. is missing a chance to help put more moderate leaders in power just as Iran’s nuclear ambitions are climaxing.

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“We have a remarkable chance to support the people who are pro-democracy, and in doing that there is an outside chance of getting people in power who would talk to us about the nuclearization of Iran,” said Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). “There is no possibility if the current government remains, because they’re hell-bent on doing it.”

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) sides with the Republicans, as he often does on foreign policy. Lieberman said Obama should be speaking out, and dismisses the theory that doing so would incite anti-American sentiment.

“My sense of human nature and the conversations I’ve had with people who have been to Iran and talked to Iranians is that we’re their hope and they need to hear from us,” Lieberman said.

But another controversial senator, Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, sides with the party he converted to this spring.

“I think the president is doing the right thing,” Specter said. “If we’re seen as siding with the insurgents, we run the risk of turning momentum against them."