by Usha Sahay [contact information]
The Presidential Candidates and Iran: 4 Things to Know About Where They Stand
Whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney taking the oath of office on January 20, confronting Iran will be a key foreign policy challenge for the next president. As Americans get ready to vote, here are four things they should know about the candidates’ stances on Iran. While this is not an exhaustive list of issues, it provides an illustrative window into the two candidates' views.
1) Romney has been inconsistent about where he would draw a “red line” for Iran:
Romney’s team has struggled to differentiate its candidate’s Iran policy from President Obama’s, and one way in which it has sought to do this is by drawing a ‘”red line,"or a trigger for military action, at Iranian nuclear capability. Romney has stated, “We must not allow Iran to have the bomb or the capacity to make a bomb.” Many observers believe that Iran already has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, but has not yet constructed one, nor has it developed the ability to carry a nuclear weapon on a missile. Per Romney’s position, then, it is possible to argue that Iran has already crossed the line that warrants the use of force.
But the Romney campaign hasn’t stuck to this position. On September 14, Romney told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that his red line was Iran’s actual acquisition of a weapon, adding that this made his policy the same as President Obama’s. This could have been an effort by Romney to walk back his earlier statements - except that the campaign quickly backtracked and began speaking once again of “capability” as the red line.
The issue of where to draw the red line is one on which Obama has been remarkably consistent, at least rhetorically. The President and members of his administration have maintained that they would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon; more specifically, some high-ranking US intelligence officials have identified the enrichment of uranium beyond 20% purity to weapons-grade as the “tell-tale indicator.” A military strike by the Obama administration is certainly possible: the President has been adamant that “all options are on the table.”
2) Obama’s stance on Iran is largely shaped by close U.S. ties to Israel, but also by his broader policy of nonproliferation, and by fear of a regional arms race.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, Obama said:
"Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty."
This is typical of how Obama frames the discussion of a nuclear Iran: addressing the threat to Israel, and then moving to a broader discussion of how a nuclear Iran would undermine the global effort to prevent proliferation, specifically by damaging the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and perhaps sparking an arms race in the Middle East. Obama expanded on this view at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in March 2012:
"A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel's security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States. (Applause.) Indeed, the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the non-proliferation regime that we've done so much to build. There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world's most volatile regions. It would embolden a regime that has brutalized its own people, and it would embolden Iran's proxies, who have carried out terrorist attacks from the Levant to southwest Asia.”
When Romney addressed the same audience just a few days later, he defined the threat as much more absolute: the danger, according to Romney, comes from what a nuclear-armed Iran itself would do to Israel and to America, rather than how its actions would affect the nonproliferation regime and the calculations of other regional players. The GOP candidate spoke to AIPAC about Iran’s desire “to dominate, to subjugate, and to obliterate” and its history of sponsoring global terrorism through Hezbollah and Hamas. For Romney, the threat is Iran’s regional ambitions and its sponsorship of terrorism around the world.
3) A number of hawkish neoconservatives who advocated the invasion of Iraq hold top positions in Romney’s foreign policy team.
One of Romney’s closest advisors on foreign policy is Dan Senor, who served in the Bush administration as spokesman for Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government established after the 2003 invasion and headed by L. Paul Bremer. Senor is notorious for his attempts to put a misleading spin on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, at one point telling reporters, “Off the record, Paris is burning. On the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.” More generally, Senor is known as a very hawkish pro-Israel voice and an “advocate of neoconservative thinking that has sought to push presidents to the right for years on Middle East policy.” After the Republican National Convention, Senor was assigned to serve as foreign-policy advisor to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Another neoconservative who has Romney’s ear is Eliot Cohen. Cohen worked in the State Department under Bush, advising Condoleezza Rice on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. He also wrote the foreword to Romney’s main foreign policy whitepaper, entitled “An American Century.” By all indications, Cohen and Senor have the same hard-line stance toward Iran that they held toward Iraq during the Bush years: both advisors have made comments about military action against Iran that are arguably more aggressive than their boss’ official position. In fact, in an October 2 headline, Defense News asked, “Is Romney Less Hawkish Than His Own National Security Advisors?” Other hawkish advisors include Bush’s former UN ambassador John Bolton, famously pro-intervention author Max Boot, and former Cheney assistant Eric Edelman. Indeed, out of Romney’s 24 special advisors, 17 are alumni of the George W. Bush administration. There’s no doubt that these neoconservatives will continue to exercise a great influence on Romney’s Iran policy should he win in November.
Obama has not surrounded himself with entirely dovish Iran advisors, either. Until last year, two of the most influential voices on Iran in the White House were Dennis Ross, who was closely involved with the efforts of the Project for a New American Century to lobby for war with Iraq, and Stuart Levey, who worked on counter-terrorism under George W. Bush. Moreover, the internally divided Romney foreign policy team does include an “internationalist wing” of more pragmatic, less neoconservative advisors. On the whole, however, Obama’s advisors are clearly less pro-intervention than Romney’s foreign policy team.
4) Obama’s sanctions have been tough, but the West may have squandered its leverage.
Without question, national and international sanctions have hit Iran hard. The U.S., backed by its international allies, has pushed so aggressively against Iran’s petrochemical, energy, and banking sectors that even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged the sanctions’ disruptive effect. In addition, on September 27, an internal Israeli government document was leaked that concluded that sanctions were having a major negative impact, both on the Iranian economy and on Iranians’ satisfaction with their government. The protests in Iran in early October provide further evidence of the impact of the sanctions.
Still, effective economic and diplomatic pressure is not an end, but rather a means of bringing Iran to the negotiating table, and it is here that the administration’s record is mixed. This summer, a series of protracted negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” (the negotiating group comprised of United States, England, France, Russia, China, Germany) ended in stalemate, and by some accounts the P5+1 missed a good opportunity to cut a deal.
In the most recent round of negotiations, Iran indicated some willingness to accede to one of the West’s key demands – to stop enriching uranium at 20% - in exchange for some concessions. Iran sought relief on some of the toughest sanctions, as well as an acknowledgment of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. However, the P5+1 did not appear willing to budge from its opening position, and seems to have stopped short of making clear to Iran the benefits of acceding to Western demands.
Opinions differ on whether the West’s decision to hold firm was a squandered opportunity or prudent hedging. If the P5+1 do plan to be more flexible on sanctions, it’s unlikely that they will do so before the November elections, since the Obama administration in particular doesn’t want to be seen as giving in to Iran. As such, the long-term effect of Obama’s dual-track approach will be unclear until after the elections. At that point, of course, the future direction of U.S. policy toward Iran will be determined by whomever occupies the White House.
Usha Sahay is a Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on US-Iran relations, nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and the US defense budget.