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Soft on Iran

McCain misrepresents Obama's stand on naming Revolutionary Guard as terrorists.


John McCain is attacking Barack Obama’s opposition to the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which (among other things) called for labeling Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. McCain claims that Obama’s opposition means that he also opposed calling the IRGC terrorists. We find otherwise. 

  • Obama cosponsored an earlier bill that also called for designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
  • The Kyl-Lieberman amendment did more than just label the IRGC terrorists. Obama stated at the time that he opposed the bill on the grounds that it constituted "saber-rattling."
  • McCain claims that Obama must oppose calling the IRGC a terrorist group because Obama’s Web site doesn’t say anything about the IRGC. McCain’s argument is a glaring example of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam.


For the past two weeks, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democratic front-runner (and now presumptive nominee) Barack Obama have engaged in a war of words over their respective positions on Iran. In a June 2 speech to the

American Israel Public Affairs Committee, McCain upped the ante, criticizing Obama’s failure to support an amendment that called for designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, a charge that McCain repeats on his Web site. It’s true that Obama opposed the amendment in question. But McCain is wrong to suggest that Obama’s opposition had anything to do with the IRGC’s designation. And McCain fails to mention that Obama cosponsored an earlier bill that would have named the IRGC a terrorist organization.

Wait, What Are We Fighting About Again?

Let’s start with that whole Revolutionary Guard business. Here’s McCain at AIPAC:

McCain (June 2): We must apply the full force of law to prevent business dealings with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. I was pleased to join Senators Lieberman and Kyl in backing an amendment calling for the designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization responsible for killing American troops in Iraq. Over three quarters of the Senate supported this obvious step, but not Senator Obama. He opposed this resolution because its support for countering Iranian influence in Iraq was, he said, a "wrong message not only to the world, but also to the region."

On his Web site, McCain makes the point even more bluntly:

McCain Web site: The Kyl-Lieberman Amendment Designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps A Terrorist Organization – But Senator Obama Opposed It.

McCain implies that Obama doesn’t think Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a terrorist organization. That’s wrong. Before the Kyl-Lieberman amendment was introduced, Obama cosponsored a bill that called for the IRGC to be designated as "a Foreign Terrorist Operation." Obama was one of 72 cosponsors of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which states (in part):

Iran Counter-Proliferation Act: The Secretary of State should designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization … and the Secretary of the Treasury should place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order 13224.

The McCain campaign notes that the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act has yet to come to the floor for a vote. But that doesn’t change the fact that Obama’s sponsorship put him on record in favor of labeling the IRGC a terrorist organization, contrary to McCain’s insinuation.

As for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, it too called for the executive branch to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization. The amendment, which passed the Senate on Sept. 26, 2007, by a vote of 76 to 22, is not as bold a step as it might sound, considering the White House had announced a month earlier that it was debating naming either the entire IRGC or the Quds Force, an elite wing of the IRGC, as a terrorist organization. The Kyl-Lieberman amendment expressed "the sense of the senate" that the IRGC as a whole ought to be so designated. Proponents argued that the designation would pressure Iran to change its behavior in Iraq.

Kyl-Lieberman Amendment (excerpt)
Sec. 1538 of H.R. 1585

(b) Sense of Senate.–It is the sense of the Senate–

(1) that the manner in which the United States transitions and structures its military presence in Iraq will have critical long-term consequences for the future of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, in particular with regard to the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to pose a threat to the security of the region, the prospects for democracy for the people of the region, and the health of the global economy;

(2) that it is a critical national interest of the United States to prevent the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from turning Shi’a militia extremists in Iraq into a Hezbollah-like force that could serve its interests inside Iraq, including by overwhelming, subverting, or co-opting institutions of the legitimate Government of Iraq;

(3) that the United States should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and place the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, as established under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and initiated under Executive Order 13224; and

(4) that the Department of the Treasury should act with all possible expediency to complete the listing of those entities targeted under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1737 and 1747 adopted unanimously on December 23, 2006 and March 24, 2007, respectively.

But the amendment did more than just urge the president to name new terrorist groups. It also expressed the sense that it is "a critical national interest" to prevent Iran from "turning Shi’a militia extremists in Iraq into a Hezbollah-like force." Some Democrats, such as Jim Webb of Virginia, argued that the amendment "could be read as a back-door method of gaining congressional validation for military action, without one hearing and without serious debate."

Obama did not actually vote on the amendment – he was campaigning at the time. But he did publicly oppose it, calling it excessively provocative:

Obama press release (Sept. 26, 2007): Senator Obama clearly recognizes the serious threat posed by Iran. However, he does not agree with the president that the best way to counter that threat is to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, and he does not think that now is the time for saber-rattling towards Iran. In fact, he thinks that our large troop presence in Iraq has served to strengthen Iran – not weaken it. He believes that diplomacy and economic pressure, such as the divestment bill that he has proposed, is the right way to pressure the Iranian regime. Accordingly, he would have opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment had he been able to vote today.

The 19 Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent who voted against the amendment included many of the Senate’s leading voices on foreign relations. Joseph Biden, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the amendment, as did Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the same committee. In fact, nine of the 23 senators who opposed the amendment sit on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Argumentum ad Ignorantiam

McCain’s Web site offers another curious – and convoluted – argument about Obama and the IRGC:

McCain Web site: After The Kyl-Lieberman Vote, Barack Obama Often Criticized The Amendment Without Mentioning Any Support For IRGC Designation … Before Responding To John McCain, Obama’s Website Provides No Indication That Obama Favors Designating The IRGC As A Terrorist Organization.

The argument is faulty. First, as mentioned already, Obama is on record in favor of designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Second, even if Obama had not cosponsored the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, failing to state support for something on your Web site doesn’t mean you therefore oppose it (and vice versa). Such reasoning constitutes a logical fallacy that philosophers call an argumentum ad ignorantiam, or an argument from ignorance. The fallacy occurs when someone asserts that the lack of evidence against a claim means that the claim is true. Should we conclude that because McCain’s Web site says nothing about torturing kittens that he supports it? Of course not.

We take no position on the wisdom of the Kyl-Lieberman act. The Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly, and our colleagues at PolitiFact found that experts were divided over the implications of the amendment. We do know that McCain’s claim that Obama’s opposition to the bill was based on an unwillingness to label the IRGC as terrorists is false.

Also worth noting: For all the time McCain and Obama have spent arguing about the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, they were the only two members of the Senate who failed to show up for the vote.

-by Joe Miller


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Holan, Angie Drobnic. "Not quite a ‘blank check’." 21 Oct. 2007. PolitiFact.com. 4 June 2008.

John McCain Press Release. "Sen. Obama On Iran’s Revolutionary Guard." 4 June 2008. John McCain 2008. 4 June 2008.

McCain, John. "Remarks By John McCain at AIPAC." 2 June 2008. John McCain 2008. 4 June 2008.

"S. 970: Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007." 8 April 2008.
Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008.

"Sec. 1538 of H.R. 1585." National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008

U.S. Senate. "Roll Call Vote on Senate Amendment 3017." 26 Sept. 2007. U.S. Senate: Legislation and Records. 2 June 2008.

"Webb: Lieberman And Kyl’s Hawkish Iran Amendment Is ‘Cheney’s Fondest Pipe Dream’." 25 Sept. 2007. ThinkProgress.org. 2 June 2008.

Wright, Robin. "Iranian Unit to Be Labeled ‘Terrorist’." 15 Aug. 2007. The Washington Post. 2 June 2008.