Brent Scowcroft doesn't think the biggest problem with Iran getting a nuclear weapon is, well, Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
"To me, whether or not Iran itself has [nuclear weapons] is a less important question than what it will do to proliferation around the world," the former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush said at a Tuesday event in Washington D.C., adding: "I think we're standing on the brink of another forward surge in nuclear proliferation. ... Don't talk about 'do we bomb them now or after they get to weapons.' That's not the point. The point is how can we dissuade Tehran from its current course of action."
That remark, which came during a panel sponsored by the Center for Security and International Studies, would seem to put Scowcroft at odds with John McCain, for whom he provided advice on national security matters in the past. The Arizona Republican is typically more interested in focusing on the drastic consequences of an Iranian bomb in and of itself, such as when he told this year's AIPAC convention that "an Iranian nuclear bomb would pose an existential threat to the people of Israel."
Appearing with Scowcroft on Tuesday was another former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who now provides advice to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Despite the partisan divide, however, both veterans of the foreign policy scene agreed they would advise Israel not to launch any preemptive strike against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. In response to a question from CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, Scowcroft pointedly said he would instruct Tel Aviv to "calm down." Brzezinski followed on Scowcroft's heels, saying he would tell Israel: "Don't do it."
Scowcroft's moderate-sounding comments are not a huge surprise from an architect of the realist project that used to hold sway within the Republican foreign policy community. But on one further point, the conservative eminence sounded perhaps closer to Obama than McCain. Approached after the event by the Huffington Post, Scowcroft said that the influence of Iranian militias in Iraq would not be one of his "benchmarks" on ending the war. For his part, McCain senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann suggested as much on a conference call earlier Tuesday, when he said: "If there's no resurgence of Al Qaeda, if there's no resurgence of Iranian-backed Shia militias ... Senator McCain would certainly look forward to further withdrawal based on those conditions."
In response, Scowcroft said: "I wouldn't use that as a benchmark. ... Iran would be crazy if it weren't trying to influence the situation in Iraq. That's one of the things eventually we need to talk about. ... I don't think we can stay long enough so that there's no Iranian influence. Because of their religion, for one thing. The Shia holy sites are in Iraq. Many of the Iraqi clergy spent decades in Iran during the Saddam period. So it's more complicated than that."
Given a previous instance of rhetorical overlap between Scowcroft and Obama, it's worth noting that the Illinois Democrat advanced a similarly "realist" analysis regarding Iran's influence in Iraq earlier this year, when he said: "We are not going to kill every Al Qaeda sympathizer, eliminate every trace of Iranian influence, or stand up a flawless democracy before we leave."