What Obama Should Say About Iran in the Debate

Sunday's New York Times carried a story that will presumably come up in Monday's foreign policy debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney: The U.S. and Iran have reportedly agreed "in principle" to have direct bilateral negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, negotiations that could start after the election if Obama wins it.

If true, this is good news. Iran has long resisted direct talks with the U.S., and lots of people think this format would be more productive than the current cumbersome format known as "P5+1" (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on one side of the table, Iran on the other). One reason Iran may have been reluctant to depart from the P5+1 format is that it includes Russia and China, which are relatively sympathetic to Tehran. Maybe, now that sanctions are starting to do serious damage to its economy, Iran figures it can't afford to hold out for the optimal deal and needs to cut to the chase. In any event, the new Iranian position reported by the Times is auspicious.

So, if we lived in a rational world, the New York Times story would be hailed as validation of Obama's foreign policy -- there might even be suspicions that the Obama administration leaked the news to glorify itself!

But we don't live in a rational world. We live in a world where (on much of the right, at least) negotiation is equated with capitulation. And that explains why there's been much speculation that the Times story was leaked by people who oppose these negotiations and/or people who want to help Mitt Romney. The thinking goes like this: In Monday's debate, Romney can depict this as Obama's secret plan to implement Munich-style appeasement after re-election, cutting some shady deal that would be bad for the U.S. and for its ally Israel.

Certainly Israel's official reaction to the news, as reported in the Times story, has nourished this anti-Obama narrative:

Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to "advance their nuclear weapons program."

Perhaps anxious about the political fallout, the White House has denied the Times story -- though it added that the Obama administration has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally." (The Iranian regime, perhaps for its own domestic political reasons, has also denied the report.)

Personally, I don't see why this story has to work against Obama. The truth is that a large majority of Americans don't want to be involved in another war, and if you can convince them that bilateral talks stand a decent chance of avoiding war while also avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran, then they'll favor bilateral talks. Sure, there may be some Jewish voters who buy the (gravely confused) argument that this would be some kind of sellout of Israel, but I'm guessing they're mainly older voters. So far as I know, the only swing state in which there are enough of those votes to worry about is Florida, and it's looking like Florida is a lost cause for Obama anyway -- and certainly a state he's not counting on in the most common victory scenarios.

If I were Obama, during Monday's debate I'd heartily embrace the idea of bilateral negotiations and do so in a way that puts Romney in an uncomfortable position. Here's what I'd say about the Times story if moderator Bob Schieffer -- or Romney -- brings it up:

One thing you learn as president is that there are times when you see a newspaper story that's not entirely accurate, and the interests of the United States are best served by just saying it's not accurate and saying nothing more. So I'm not going to comment further on that story. However, let me say this: We have always said we would welcome bilateral negotiations with Iran. And the reason is that war is a very serious thing, and a war with Iran could have some very bad consequences, consequences that endanger the lives of American soldiers and American civilians, and endanger the lives of our friends in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East and even in Europe. I believe every president has the moral obligation to resort to war only when all other avenues have been exhausted, and one of those avenues is certainly direct negotiations with Iran. So, yes, I'd welcome direct negotiations with Iran, because I think there's a chance they could lead to a peaceful resolution of this problem, a resolution that keeps Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and doesn't involve war. And if Mitt Romney wouldn't engage in direct talks with Iran, then that just means he's more likely to get America involved in another war than I am. So I challenge him to tell us tonight, would he or would he not be willing to engage in direct negotiations with Iran before resorting to war?"

This puts Romney in a tight spot. If he says he wouldn't talk to Iran, he's sounding more casual about starting a war than most voters want him to sound. If he says he would talk to Iran, then the story that may well have been leaked to damage Obama will have been neutralized -- and in a way that's kind of flattering to Obama, since would-be hawk Mitt will be seen as meekly following Obama's lead. What's more, and perhaps most important, there would then be conspicuous bipartisan agreement on the value of direct talks -- and that agreement would prepare the ground for them after the election. What's not to like?