Newt Gingrich Contemplates War with Iran

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A lively debate continues to swirl in some quarters of Washington about whether time is running out to derail Iran’s nuclear program through military action. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who has perhaps written more than anyone on this subject, relays growing concerns in Israel about Barack Obama’s willingness to use force if necessary, and says he’s “beginning to have doubts” about whether Obama really considers a Persian nuke unacceptable.

Suddenly, Newt Gingrich’s opinion about this has become quite significant. But his position is a little tricky to pin down. Appearing on CNN last week, for instance, Gingrich told Wolf Blitzer that if the Israelis were to call and notify him about an imminent military strike, his first response would be: “How can we help you?” He continued:

An Iranian nuclear weapon is potentially a second holocaust. Israel is a very urban country. Two or three nuclear weapons wipes out most of the Jews who live in Israel. I believe Ahmadinejad would do it in a [inaudible]. When you have people put on body suits to walk into a crowded mall to blow themselves up, you better believe they put on a nuclear weapon. So, I think the world needs to understand, Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon. All the world can decide is whether they help us peacefully stop it or they force us to use violence, but Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon.

But Newt sounded less bellicose during his debate yesterday with Jon Huntsman, arguing that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear complex won’t solve the problem:

They have huge underground facilities. Some of the underground facilities are under mosques. Some of them are in cities. The idea that you’re going to wage a bombing campaign that accurately takes out all the Iranian nuclear program I think is a fantasy. It would be a gigantic mess, with enormous collateral civilian casualties…. There’s no practical scenario in which you can take out their weapons without them rebuilding them.

Instead, Gingrich called–as he has before–for a combination of measures to topple the Iranian regime, including harsher economic sanctions such as cutting off Iran’s gasoline supplies, and other “political, psychological, and diplomatic” measures. But he also went a step farther, suggesting that violence might make sense after all, so long as its not focused solely on nuclear targets: “Unless they unilaterally disarm their entire system, we are going to replace their regime. We’re ideally going to do it non-militarily, but we are not going to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon.” The implications of that position–“militarily” replacing the Iranian regime–are even more dramatic. Does Newt really entertain the idea of going to war with Iran to change its government and somehow install a friendlier one? It seems so. Gingrich he has said previously that any strike on Iran’s nuclear program should be undertaken “only as a first step towards replacing the regime.”

This leaves Gingrich with a position that is perhaps unique, and quite dramatic. He’s skeptical about military action to take out Iran’s nuclear complex. But he thinks war with Iran to replace its regime might be necessary. Amid the freak show of the Republican presidential campaign, that’s a sobering reminder of the underlying stakes.