Romney's Critique of Obama's Iran Policy

Here is an example of the b.s. of all campaigns, everywhere. Just before last week's foreign policy debate, the Obama campaign sent out a bulletin entitled "Romnesia, Foreign Policy Edition," which contained the following bullet item:


Romney To Iran: "If You Want Peace, Prepare For War." "The United States needs a very different policy. Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war."

Scary, no? Except that the idea of keeping the peace by preparing for war has been American doctrine, and everyone else's doctrine, for just about ever. Could you imagine a Romney campaign press release headlined: "Obama Secretly Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War in Persian Gulf"? This would be a perfectly true statement. So would "Obama Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War Against North Korea" and "Obama Spends Billions to Target World with Nukes."

I mention this only to make the observation that the Iran policies of Obama and Romney are actually not so far apart. They are both opposed to containment, they both support tough sanctions and they both hold out the option of military action should Iran continue down its current path.  It's been in the interest of Obama to paint Romney as a warmonger, and in the interest of Romney to paint Obama as an appeaser, but I think both of them are united in the idea that a military confrontation to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold may be necessary. Obama would go into 2013 with certain advantages -- as I've written before, I think Obama is more likely than Romney to move toward military action, particularly in the short-term, if the moment comes (which is not something that Sheldon Adelson wants to hear), but I've come to believe that there is a slightly better chance that the Iranian regime would show up for serious negotiations with Romney as president.

Why? President Obama has been undermined from time to time by his own team on the Iran question -- whenever a senior official of his administration analyzes publicly the dangers of a military confrontation to the U.S., we should assume the Iranian leaders breathe a sigh of relief, and make the calculations that Obama is bluffing on military action.  So far at least, Romney's people haven't undermined him the same way. In any case, the Iranians most likely believe that the Republicans are more bellicose. (Mind you, I don't think the Iranians are very much interested in making the deal the U.S. wants them to make, but this could change as sanctions become more punishing.)

All this is a roundabout way of getting to the debate, and Romney's seemingly new emphasis on seeking a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear program. Like some hawks, and some doves, I asked myself if Romney was shaking the Etch-a-Sketch, and so I e-mailed him some questions about his Iran thinking. Here are some of his e-mailed answers, which appear in my Bloomberg View column today:

"I have always talked about the diplomatic process," he wrote. "I will not rule out diplomatic options, so long as we would not be rewarding bad behavior and so long as the Iranian leadership was truly cornered and ready to change its behavior. A crumbling economy is not enough. Because even with a crumbling economy, the Iranian leadership is still racing towards a bomb right now."

Romney went out of his way to suggest that the Obama administration plans to spring some sort of late-November surprise on America's Middle East allies, citing a recent New York Times report that Iran and the White House had agreed to face-to-face negotiations after the election (a report denied by the White House). "Our closest allies, like Israel, will not learn about our plans from the New York Times," Romney wrote. "And I'll be clear with the American people about where I'm heading. I won't be secretly asking the Ayatollahs for more flexibility following some future election."

He also denied that his new emphasis on negotiations means that he would accept less than a complete halt to Iran's nuclear work: "To be clear, the objective of any strategy will be to get Iran to stop spinning centrifuges, stop enriching uranium, shut down its facilities. Full stop. Existing fissile material will have to be shipped out of the country."