Conservatives Clash Over Iran in Iowa Debate

Patrick Goodenough | August 12, 2011 | 4:35am EDT
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Republican presidential candidates are pictured during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. Pictured left to right: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

( – Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa revealed two very different conservative approaches to how the United States should deal with the threat posed by Iran.

During a combative exchange in the second half of the two-hour nationally televised debate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sparred over Iranian policies and nuclear ambitions.

“Why wouldn’t it be natural that they might want a nuclear weapon?” asked Paul, noting other countries in Iran’s neighborhood that have nuclear capability. “Internationally they would be given more respect.”

The libertarian Texan recalled that President Reagan had “talked to the Soviets” and hadn’t attacked them despite their nuclear arsenal, and said the U.S. should “talk to” the Iranians too.

Santorum’s response was scathing: “Anyone that suggests that Iran is not a threat to this country, is not a threat to stability in the Middle East, is obviously not seeing the world very clearly,” he said.

“He sees it exactly the way that Barack Obama sees it – that we have to go around and apologize for the fact that we’ve gone out and exerted our influence to create freedom around the world.”

Santorum described Iran as “a mullahcracy that tramples the rights of women, tramples the rights of gays, tramples the rights of people all throughout their society – and is the greatest supporter of terrorism in the Middle East and around the world, and is setting up training camps and is working with Venezuela and other countries south of our border to threaten us.

“Iran is a country that must be confronted,” he declared. “When Rick Santorum is president, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon because the world as we know it will be no more.”

Paul hit back: “You’ve heard the war propaganda that is liable to lead us into the sixth war, and I worry about that position. Iran is a threat because they have some militants there, but believe me they’re all around the world and they’re not a whole lot different than others. Iran does not have an air force that can come here. They can’t even make enough gasoline for themselves!”

Paul accused hawkish Republicans of “building up this case just like we did in Iraq – build up the war propaganda.”

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gestures during the Iowa debate on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

“I’m sure he supported that war as well,” he added, gesturing towards Santorum, who nodded affirmatively. “It’s time we quit this,” Ron concluded. “It’s trillions of dollars we’re spending on these wars.”

(Paul did not elaborate on his “sixth war” reference, but Paul supporters have identified the five “wars” currently underway as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NATO operation in Libya, and U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. Some add to that list drone attacks in Somalia as well.)

At another point in the debate, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said the U.S. needed to take “every plausible step to keep them from getting a nuclear weapon,” Rep. Michele Bachmann said that as president she would “do everything to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear power,” and Herman Cain argued that energy independence was necessary in order to keep Iran from getting the bomb.

The other candidates in the debate were former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – the race frontrunner, according to polls – former House speaker Newt Gingrich; and John Huntsman, former ambassador to China and governor of Utah.

The event was sponsored by Fox News, the Washington Examiner and the Iowa Republican Party, and came ahead of the Iowa GOP’s Ames straw poll this weekend.

Following the debate, a panel of political analysts on Fox News gave their assessments of the candidates’ performance. Their general view was that Romney had emerged unscathed, that Minnesota rivals Bachmann and Pawlenty had failed to impress, and Gingrich had offered a good message – albeit from a “flawed messenger.”

They also agreed that the entry into the race of Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday could change the dynamic significantly.

A writer on the official Ron Paul 2012 Web site declared him to be “the only candidate tonight that hasn’t unilaterally declared war on Iran, (or if you’re Rick Santorum, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Syria) for the same vague and likely unfounded reasons as the last war.”

In an unscientific “who won the debate?” poll on the Fox News Web site several hours after the debate, Paul was leading by a huge margin (around 60 percent), followed by Gingrich (around 12), Romney (9), Cain (6.4), Bachmann (5.6), Santorum (2.3), Pawlenty (1.6) and Huntsman (1.6).

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