Last night's presidential debate tended to blur some of the fundamental differences that had emerged during the campaign in the candidates' approaches to the Iran nuclear issue, and probably left most viewers more confused about the Iranian imbroglio than ever.
Governor Romney's campaign website recently shifted his red line for taking military action against Iran. He had previously said Iran could not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, as had President Obama. But two weeks ago, Romney added that he would also not allow Iran to have a "nuclear weapons capability." This brought him into alignment with the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his famous "cartoon bomb" speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Netanyahu dramatically illustrated where his red line is, arguing that Iran could not be allowed to accumulate sufficient 20%-enriched uranium as feed stock for enriching further to the amount of weapons grade material needed to supply a single bomb and he projected that this point would be reached in the late spring or summer of 2013. Romney said on October 9 that he would use the same test to evaluate Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program as Netanyahu.
However, when Obama tried to draw out this distinction last night, saying that Romney talked "as if he would take premature military action," Romney softened his tone, identifying the mission as dissuading Tehran from getting nuclear weapons and arguing that military action should only be taken as a last resort. He also agreed that Obama's "crippling sanctions" was the correct approach, but charged that they should have been imposed sooner. Romney repeatedly stressed that Iran was now "four years closer to the bomb" than when Obama took office.
Listeners to the debate could easily miss the official assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community since 2007 that Iran already has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so, but that it has not yet made this decision. In this sense, Iran is now like Japan. Both are technically capable of building and deploying nuclear weapons without further foreign assistance (although Japan could do so more quickly).
If Iran already has a "nuclear weapons capability," then the operational question for Gov. Romney should have been: What developmental milestone for Iran should be (or should have been) used to trigger a U.S. attack?
U.S. Government officials and non-governmental experts estimate that it would take more than two years from an Iranian decision to build a bomb for Iran to assemble its first nuclear weapon. Therefore, the operational question for President Obama should have been: What Iranian actions would indicate that Tehran had decided to build nuclear weapons, thus triggering a U.S. attack?
The possibilities for such a trigger range from evidence that enriched uranium had been diverted from declared facilities, to expulsion of IAEA inspectors, to withdrawal from the NPT, to testing of a nuclear device, but the president provided no further details.
As the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis reminds us, drawing red lines is a portentous undertaking, potentially leading to war. The details and implications need to be exhaustively discussed. in Monday night's debate, neither candidate was asked to spell out the implications of his definition of red lines.
The Bottom Line for Negotiations
The moderator did ask the candidates: "What is the deal being sought by negotiations?" Obama inadvertently confused the distinction he had earlier tried to highlight. After referring to the need to convince Iran to abide by the UN resolutions, he added: "The deal is that Iran ends its nuclear program," implying an end to uranium enrichment.
However, the context and his subsequent remarks made clear he meant the nuclear weapons aspects of Iran's nuclear program. The Obama administration has clearly signaled that it would not be inalterably opposed to Iran continuing limited uranium enrichment under the right circumstances. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in March 2011 that "under very strict conditions" and "having responded to the international community's concerns," Iran would have a "right" to enrich uranium under IAEA inspections.
Moreover, the UN Security Council calls for suspending, not ending Iranian enrichment activities. The comprehensive proposals of the six powers negotiating with Iran, the P5+1, have included a review mechanism for lifting suspension—implicitly indicating that enrichment could be resumed at some point.
Tehran clearly hopes to gain international support by misrepresenting the P5+1 position on uranium enrichment as unyielding, distracting attention from the real issue with the nuclear program, which is Iran's suspicious past activities and continuing unwillingness to comply fully with its IAEA obligations.
Gov. Romney has in the past proposed the very position featured in the Iranian caricature, opining that allowing Iranian enrichment of uranium under any circumstances would be "too risky." In the debate, he did not specify whether or not a negotiated outcome could include limited uranium enrichment, although the "nuclear weapons capable" language implies that Romney's red line would not.
The Way Forward
To resolve the Iran nuclear crisis, President Obama has placed more emphasis on the multilateral search for a negotiated solution, using ever more stringent economic sanctions as an inducement for Tehran to negotiate seriously.
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.
Hanging like a dark cloud over the candidates' consensus was the recent characterization by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates of the likely consequences of a preventive attack on Iran: "catastrophic."