Where’s Romney’s contrast with Obama on Iran?

As tensions mount between Israel and the United States over setting "red lines" for Iran’s nuclear program, Mitt Romney made a notable admission to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Thursday: His red line is the same as Obama’s. "My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney explained. "It is inappropriate for them ...

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

As tensions mount between Israel and the United States over setting "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program, Mitt Romney made a notable admission to ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Thursday: His red line is the same as Obama's. "My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney explained. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world." When Stephanopoulos asked twice whether Romney's red line squares with Obama's (the president's stated policy is to "prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon"), the Republican candidate replied in the affirmative each time.  

What's odd is that while Romney did vaguely mention Iran's "capacity to terrorize the world," he didn't suggest that he would draw a line at Iran obtaining the capability to develop a nuclear weapon -- a lower bar for a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities (one Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favors and the Obama administration has not yet committed to). Romney alluded to that lower threshold during a visit to Jerusalem over the summer, telling Netanyahu that "as we face the challenges of an Iran seeking nuclear capability, we must draw upon our interests and our values to take them on a different course."

But, crucially, Romney hasn't gone as far as his surrogates have in drawing a red line at nuclear capability. Romney advisor Dan Senor, for example, previewed the candidate's Jerusalem remarks by saying "it is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program" since "the capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization." In an interview with the New York Times this week, advisor Eliot Cohen said Romney "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon" but did not specify the point at which the development of Iran's nuclear capability -- a highly technical process that may already be quite far along depending on how you define the slippery term -- would be unacceptable. 

As tensions mount between Israel and the United States over setting "red lines" for Iran’s nuclear program, Mitt Romney made a notable admission to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Thursday: His red line is the same as Obama’s. "My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney explained. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world." When Stephanopoulos asked twice whether Romney’s red line squares with Obama’s (the president’s stated policy is to "prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon"), the Republican candidate replied in the affirmative each time.  

What’s odd is that while Romney did vaguely mention Iran’s "capacity to terrorize the world," he didn’t suggest that he would draw a line at Iran obtaining the capability to develop a nuclear weapon — a lower bar for a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (one Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favors and the Obama administration has not yet committed to). Romney alluded to that lower threshold during a visit to Jerusalem over the summer, telling Netanyahu that "as we face the challenges of an Iran seeking nuclear capability, we must draw upon our interests and our values to take them on a different course."

But, crucially, Romney hasn’t gone as far as his surrogates have in drawing a red line at nuclear capability. Romney advisor Dan Senor, for example, previewed the candidate’s Jerusalem remarks by saying "it is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program" since "the capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization." In an interview with the New York Times this week, advisor Eliot Cohen said Romney "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon" but did not specify the point at which the development of Iran’s nuclear capability — a highly technical process that may already be quite far along depending on how you define the slippery term — would be unacceptable. 

The ABC interview didn’t offer many other insights into how Romney’s Iran policy would differ from Obama’s. Romney advocated for "crippling sanctions" — a track the Obama administration has pursued aggressively. He said "Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America" — echoing Obama’s assertion that "when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say." He explained that the United States must make clear that it will "take any action necessary to prevent … Iran becoming nuclear"; Obama has said that "when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table."

Indeed, Romney’s sharpest criticisms of Obama’s Iran policy in the ABC interview and in a recent NBC sit-down have centered upon the president’s outreach to Iran’s leaders and silence during pro-democracy protests in Iran in 2009 — critiques that relate to the first half of Obama’s term, before the administration adopted a more aggressive posture toward Tehran as engagement floundered.

What’s particularly striking about Romney’s failure so far to clearly differentiate his Iran policy from Obama’s is that the Republican candidate recently argued that the president’s greatest foreign-policy mistake is not doing enough to halt Iran’s nuclear program. "Iran is closer to having a weapon, closer to having nuclear capability than when he took office," Romney told NBC’s David Gregory last week.

Romney, in other words, appears to be suggesting that Obama cost the United States precious time in initially pursuing engagement with Iran, and that a President Romney will largely stick to Obama’s recalibrated approach (tough sanctions mixed with diplomacy) — but with a threat of force that Tehran will, for reasons that have yet to be specified, take more seriously. It’s a subtle distinction for an issue that Romney has characterized as Obama’s biggest blunder. 

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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