Do Obama and Romney differ on Iran?

Two must-read analyses of the Iran portion from last night’s final presidential debate are brought to us by TIME’s Tony Karon and the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann. (This TPM headline also sums up the entire debate quite nicely: “Romney’s Final Debate Message: I’ll Be A Better Obama”.)

Karon writes that regardless of who wins the 2012 presidential election, the United States will consider direct talks with Iran:

“It is essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran,” Romney said in Monday’s foreign policy debate, “and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” His leverage of choice: “crippling sanctions” with the threat of military action as a last resort should Iran cross a red line toward developing “nuclear-weapons capability.” That’s broadly the same policy the Obama Administration has followed. Asked to differentiate himself, in the debate, Romney didn’t even raise the ambiguous question of where to draw the red line. (Obama sets his red line for action at Iran moving to acquire a nuclear weapon; Romney uses the phrase nuclear-weapons capability – although it’s not exactly clear whether this means the capability to build nuclear weapons, which Iran perhaps already has in latent form, or the capability to rapidly assemble and deploy nuclear warheads atop missiles.) Instead Romney simply insisted he’d have imposed tighter sanctions sooner.

But inflexibility from both sides may prevent a peaceful resolution to the Iran-US impasse:

While he may be open to a genuine compromise, Khamenei can’t be seen to surrender on “nuclear rights” for which Iran has fought and suffered growing isolation over the past decade, notes University of Hawaii Iran scholar Farideh Farhi. “With the draconian economic measures imposed on Iran in the past year, the [domestic] political terrain makes quite impossible the acceptance of a deal that does not bring about some immediate, palpable, even if small, relaxation of the sanctions regime,” says Farhi. Imagining sanctions as an alternative to military action may be misleading, she argues, because Khamenei believes their purpose is regime change, and mounting economic pain could prompt the regime to become more reckless in its effort to break out of the noose.

(Interestingly, Romney previously dodged questions about meeting directly with Iran, but Benjamin Armbruster reports that Paul Ryan was on network morning shows today saying that Romney would engage in bilateral talks without preconditions [from the Iranians?]).

Thielmann, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst, meanwhile clarifies the candidates’ positions on Iran:

Obama concluded last night that: “There is a deal to be had, and that is that [the Iranians] abide by the rules that have already been established. They convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear [weapons] program. There are inspections that are very intrusive. But over time, what they can do is regain credibility. In the meantime, though, we’re not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence that that takes place.”  At the same time, he warned that “the clock is ticking” and that he would not allow negotiations “to go on forever.”

For his part, Governor Romney appeared to tack away during the debate from his previous posture on Iran. Earlier, he had followed the lead of Israel’s prime minister, appearing more skeptical that any acceptable compromise could be reached with the current regime in Tehran and more willing to imply that unilateral military action would be taken sooner rather than later. Last night, Romney’s martial alarm was barely audible. Yet his avowed interest in diplomacy was belied by his call for treating Iran’s diplomats “as the pariahs they are.” It is difficult to negotiate constructively with those you are simultaneously labeling “pariahs.”

Both candidates appeared united in making one point about Iran policy options. Whatever the consequences of exercising the military option, they each signaled willingness ultimately to launch a preventive attack against Iran. This in spite of a near consensus among experts that, short of invasion and occupation, such an attack would not prevent but would bring about a nuclear-armed Iran.


Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.