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Candidates open up on Ahmadinejad

GOP hopefuls rush to adopt the hardest line, but the Democrats also condemn the Iranian leader and his positions.

September 26, 2007|By Scott Martelle and Times Staff Writer

A U.S. visit this week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- including his controversial speech at Columbia University -- drew divergent reactions from the leading Republican and Democratic presidential contenders, but the differences were in tone rather than policy.

The Republicans scrambled to draw the hardest line against the Iranian government, which has been accused of supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents and whose nuclear policy is seen by much of the world as an attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. The top Democratic candidates, who have urged a similarly hard line against Iran's evolution into a nuclear power, also condemned Ahmadinejad but with more muted rhetoric.

On the campaign trail, the top Republican candidates condemned Ahmadinejad, who has questioned whether the Holocaust happened and called for the end of Israel, in harsh and occasionally personal terms. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani described the Iranian president as "deranged" and joined the other candidates in criticizing Columbia University's invitation to Ahmadinejad.

"The idea that it's in the name of free speech, well, that isn't correct. Not everybody gets to speak at Columbia," Giuliani said Monday in an interview with conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity. "This is a damaging thing, doing something like this with someone as deranged as Ahmadinejad is. You have no idea what you're playing with here. So why would you invite him to a distinguished lecture series?"

Fred Thompson, former Tennessee senator, drew the sharpest line last week, before the visit.

"I know there would be ramifications in the United Nations if we did this, but I would deny this character a visa," Thompson said. "I wouldn't let him in the country."

The Democrats sounded less confrontational. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said she would not have invited Ahmadinejad to talk at Columbia but stopped short of criticizing the university's decision.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama questioned the decision and described many of Ahmadinejad's statements as "odious," but said American ideals would prevail in an open discussion. He reaffirmed his earlier stance that if elected, he would conduct direct negotiations with Iran, which has been on the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring nations since 1984.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson echoed Clinton, disavowing Ahmadinejad's position but saying the invitation to speak at Columbia was a matter for the university to decide.

While the Republican candidates' harsh talk might appeal to the conservative party base, polls show most Americans favor diplomacy with Iran. A CBS News/New York Times poll this month found that 67% believed the Iranian government was arming Iraqi insurgents and 59% believed that "Iran is a threat that can be contained with diplomacy now."

In Congress on Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 397-16, for a measure by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) to toughen economic sanctions on Iran.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) tried to build support for a nonbinding proposal supporting the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. They have encountered resistance from some Democrats who fear the measure might be construed as a green light for military action against Iran.

Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it was "astonishing and astounding that Columbia University would welcome the president of a country that has not only dedicated itself to a policy of extinction of the state of Israel, but as he is speaking, most of the lethal and explosive devices are being exported from Iran into Iraq." He said that "Columbia's belief in free speech does not extend to Reserve Officers' Training Corps units being allowed on their campus."

Mitt Romney aired radio ads in Iowa and South Carolina touting his decision last year, while still governor of Massachusetts, to refuse to let state police protect former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami during a speech at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. But the ads conflicted with news accounts at the time of Khatami's visit just over a year ago.

Romney issued a statement before a meeting with State Department officials to plan security announcing that if asked, the state would not help. Romney's ad, though, claims that "the Iranian wanted VIP treatment at taxpayer expense. But Gov. Mitt Romney said, 'No.' Gov. Romney called the invitation a 'disgrace' and refused to grant Khatami a police escort."

Yet there was no indication at the time that Massachusetts was asked to provide an escort, or that Khatami had made any request, as Romney claimed. The campaign did not respond to a request for a clarification.

Some observers said Ahmadinejad's visit wasn't the kind of event likely to change the shape of the campaign.

"It's a classic free issue for candidates," said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and former National Security Council advisor to Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "No one likes Ahmadinejad and everyone can talk about how outrageous it was without being pressed on any of their policies."

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

Times staff writer Noam N. Levey contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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