02/15/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

As Obama Puts Pressure On Iran, Santorum Misquotes Him

It was bad timing for Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum, who this week misquoted President Obama's stance on Iran just as the administration announced how it plans to enforce its sanctions against that country.

The announcement included how the U.S. would determine if another country has "significantly reduced" oil purchases from Iran.

"We are working intensively to implement the (National Defense Authorization Act's) financial sanctions as part of our broad-based efforts to stop Iran's illicit nuclear activities," David Cohen, U.S. Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.

"We urge banks worldwide to quickly terminate their ties to the Central Bank of Iran, both to protect themselves from CBI's illicit financial activities and to isolate the CBI from the international financial system," he said.

As these headlines were poised to break across the country, Santorum dusted off an old McCain ad idea as the lead for an entire page for his campaign website titled, "Rick Santorum's Response To Iran," which was posted Feb. 11. Santorum asserted, "President Barack Obama naively and cavalierly once declared Iran as a 'tiny country' that did not pose a serious threat," implying that Obama does not take Iran's nuclear threat seriously. Senator John McCain used the same argument against the then-candidate Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential election ad campaign.

"Santorum's Response To Iran" page plays with words to suggest Obama isn't experienced enough to handle Iran. But history and the headlines indicate Santorum's got it wrong.

In fact, the "tiny country" comment was derived from a speech Obama made in Pendelton, Ore., while still on the campaign trail on May 18, 2008, in which he compared how America must treat the threats from Iran, Venezuela and Cuba as tiny compared to the former Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union presented a serious threat, "we were willing to talk [to the Soviet Union] at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet," Obama said, "and ultimately that direct engagement led to a series of measures that helped prevent nuclear war, and over time allowed the kind of opening that brought down the Berlin Wall. Now, that has to be the kind of approach that we take."

Obama went on to say, "You know, Iran, they spend one-one hundredth of what we spend on the military. If Iran ever tried to pose a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance. And we should use that position of strength that we have to be bold enough to go ahead and listen. That doesn't mean we agree with them on everything. We might not compromise on any issues, but at least we should find out other areas of potential common interest, and we can reduce some of the tensions that have caused us so many problems around the world."

Rather than dismiss those countries as nonthreatening, Obama urged direct talks to reduce tensions. He had expressed this idea of strength and diplomacy many times during his campaign. And it brought a lot of heat on him from the right.

It's ironic that McCain used this excerpt in an attempt to defame Obama, considering the events, which occurred two days prior to the Pendelton comments. It was the 60th anniversary of Israel's Independence, May 16, 2008, and President G.W. Bush stood before the Israeli Parliament. He took the opportunity, not to congratulate nor celebrate the occasion with the Israelis, but instead to chastise the Democratic presidential candidate for wanting to negotiate with countries like Iran, likening it to trying to "negotiate with Hitler." McCain also joined the Obama bashing bandwagon that day, criticizing Obama's idea of easing the tensions with the Middle East by talking to nations like Iran.

Why then was there a question about Obama's understanding of the graveness of the situation? McCain was somehow able to not only criticize Obama for his willingness to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran, but also to simultaneously opine that Obama didn't take Iran seriously.

Santorum is now using the same tactic, using words out of context against the Presidential incumbent.

The Pulitzer Prize winning publication of the Tampa Bay Times, Politifact, printed an article about McCain's ad, and the contents of Obama's speech and retort when he elaborated on his comments in May 2008. They deemed McCain's assertions "false."

"So John McCain, he said, 'Oh, Obama doesn't understand the threat of Iran.' I understand the threat of Iran," Obama said. "But what I know is that the Soviet Union had the ability to destroy the world several times over, had satellites spanning the globe, had huge masses of conventional military power all directed at destroying us, and so I've made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave, but what I've said is that we should not just talk to our friends, we should be willing to engage our enemies as well, that's what diplomacy is all about.

"So let me be absolutely clear: Iran is a grave threat. It has an illicit nuclear program, it supports terrorism across the region and militias in Iraq, it threatens Israel's existence, it denies the Holocaust. But this threat has grown, primarily - and this is the irony - the reason Iran is so much more powerful now than it was a few years ago is because of the Bush-McCain policy of fighting an endless war in Iraq and refusing to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran."

Obama never said the threat from Iran was tiny, as both Santorum and McCain have asserted.
Obama also did not ignore Iran in his State of the Union Address in January, when he said, "Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." He spoke those words weeks before Santorum posted his page.

Obama's policies regarding Iran are clear and are front-page news. Santorum is only repeating McCain's failed attempt to portray the president as inept at foreign policy and national security and to play on America's fears of nuclear war. When searching the facts, and the headlines, however, Santorum's argument comes up short.