Romney campaign continues to struggle with Iran question

Romney campaign continues to struggle with Iran question

As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitt Romney changed his tune about what he considers a "red line" for Iran’s nuclear program in a conference call with American rabbis on Thursday, arguing that "it is unacceptable for Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon." That echoed foreign-policy advisor Dan Senor’s warning on CBS this morning about "Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability." 

Tellingly, however, Romney’s campaign website, while not mentioning red lines specifically, still states that "Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon" — the red line the Republican candidate articulated in an interview with ABC just last week (and the red line the Obama administration has staked out, without calling it a red line). There’s no mention of nuclear weapons capability.

The campaign, in other words, appears to be in the process of shifting gears, having made a calculation that it needs to do a better job of differentiating Romney’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program — which the candidate has cast as the most important foreign-policy issue in the campaign — from Obama’s. This week’s move: lowering the bar for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to Iran’s capacity to build and deliver a bomb.

If the campaign is interested in a sharp contrast, however, it has a ways to go. In Thursday’s conference call, Romney said he didn’t want to get into "great detail" about where precisely he would draw red lines when it came to the development of Iran’s nuclear program (to Romney’s credit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dodged this question too). In his CBS appearance, Senor sidestepped questions about the first thing a President Romney would do about Iran before finally saying the candidate would grant fewer waivers to financial institutions around the world on sanctions.

"We do not advocate military action against Iran, it should be the option of last resort," Senor said, before adding that "what the administration has done is broadcast to the mullahs in Tehran that the military option is the absolute one thing America doesn’t want anybody to do." Given that Obama has said he will also take no options — including military force — off the table, it’s still unclear how Obama and Romney materially differ on this issue. 

When Romney has been pressed for specifics on Iran in recent interviews with NBC and ABC and in Thursday’s conference call, he’s repeatedly referenced a speech he gave in Israel in 2007, in which he called for economic sanctions ("at least as severe as the sanctions we imposed on Apartheid South Africa"), diplomatic isolation (including an indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide), more cooperation from Arab states, a threat of military force against Iran, and a NATO-led effort to support moderates in the Muslim world. But as the 2012 election enters its final weeks, Romney will likely be pressured to do more than refer people interested in details to a talk he gave more than five years ago. 

When Charlie Rose asked Senor on CBS this morning what the "single biggest difference" between Obama and Romney was on foreign policy, Senor responded, "The biggest crisis facing the United States from a security standpoint is Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability." Note that he sidestepped the question about differences. The Romney campaign, it seems, is still ironing those out.