Who Won the Presidential Debate: Romney Loses on Iran, Obama Iran Policy is Working


President Obama and Mitt Romney are sure to discuss Iran during Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy. Mitt Romney’s stated policy is largely in line with the president’s, though he seems to intimate that he would be more inclined to use military force. The President will be defending his strategy of multilateral sanctions and isolation, highlighted by an acute Iranian currency crisis and the latest round of restrictions announced by the European Union last week.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

A few months ago reports surfaced about a backdoor diplomatic gesture made by the White House and leaked to David Ignatius at the Washington Post. According to senior officials in the Obama administration, "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation 'will never pursue nuclear weapons'." The messenger appears to have been Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who is playing an increasingly high-profile role in regional diplomacy."

Critics of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy will enevitably decry this move as yet more evidence of the President's supposed weakness, though it's important to understand that his Iran strategy has, thus far, been fairly successful.

From the beginning, President Obama has pursued a dual-track strategy that used the offer of diplomatic engagement, and the Iranian rejection of it, as a tool to lay bare the true intentions of the regime in Tehran. It is exactly this position that was necessary to create widespread international support for robust multilateral sanctions, especially among key allies in Europe and Asia who have been traditionally much more reliant on Iranian energy resources than the U.S. Unilateral sanctions have very limited impact on a country whose primary export markets are far from North America, and when the U.S. asks its allies to implement sanctions that require real sacrifices on their part, they want to know that American policymakers have exhausted all other tools.

Most experts and analysts agree that the sanctions organized by the Obama administration have contributed (along with fundamental macroeconomic weakness and government mismanagement) to an Iranian economy that, while not spiraling out of control, is certainly ailing. If there is a real chance of regime change in Iran, it's going to have to be domestically driven, and key constituencies in the middle class and business sector won't be motivated to get off the sidelines until it becomes clear that the only path to avoiding sustained economic calamity is to usher in a new regime. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities and other clearly external attacks on the country, however, would likely consolidate domestic support for the Ayatollah, serve as a much more credible scapegoat for their economic torpor, and delay the attitudinal and organizational shifts needed to inspire sustainable resistance to the leadership in Tehran. In addition,  such strikes would likely fail to significantly derail the nuclear program. For these reasons,most experts oppose military action at this point.

It's also important to understand that the intelligence community has consistently determined that no decision has been made in Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program. It's easy to lose sight of this fact amidst sensationalized media reporting. While IAEA reports certainly indicate that Iran is expanding its enrichment capability and is determined to be less than fully-open to inspectors, these decisions must be understood within the context of objective intelligence assessments and the broader, historical, strategic relationship between Iran and the West. The U.S. and Israel both have a long history of gamesmanship with Iran, but a central cause of the perceived daylight between the two countries on their Iran policies stems not from personal antipathy between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, but a real difference in the type of threat that Iran posses to the two nations.

The U.S. and Israel have fundamentally different priorities and red lines with Iran, which is only logical as the relationship between those two countries has different historical dynamics, and regional proximity makes Iran a legitimate medium-term threat to Israel, whereas the same geography makes the threat of Iran to Americans a pretty tough sell. American interests in Iran are primarily based on the regional, geo-strategic, energy, and economic implications of Iranian behavior and policy. In this context, an Iran that possesses a regulated civilian nuclear program but is contained, decaying from within, and ensconced in a stable regional environment, would be an acceptable,if suboptimal, situation for the U.S. Israel obviously views that situation very differently.

As the GOP primaries give way to a general election campaign, criticism of U.S. policy toward Iran will be streaming even faster from the mouths of conservative pundits and politicians. The calls for military action, however, are not only far less prudent than the President's current strategy, but also face skepticism from the American public. A recent report from Third Way found that "even the men most supportive of military action express some concerns about the burden on the U.S. The focus groups suggest a great deal of worry over the threat Iran poses, but also caution about the U.S. taking direct military action to confront that threat." This public sentiment, along with the success of the current strategy, and actual strategic environment suggest that the Obama administration should continue to resist calls for military action in Iran, work with their Israeli allies to help build a secure regional environment, and stay the course with aggressive sanctions and increasing international isolation. 

This essay was originally published by NDN, and is available at www.NDN.org.