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Obama vs. Romney on Iran

They may be vague, but we can still infer from Mitt Romney’s statements on Iran foreign policy that he would be less effective – even for hawks – than a new Obama administration.

In spite of the lack of specifics about a hypothetical Romney administration’s Iran policy, we can infer from the candidate’s statements that it will be less effective – even for hawks – than a new Obama administration’s Iran policy.

There is little that can be said about the Romney campaign’s Iran policy. Little of it is known, as Republican candidate Mitt Romney has revealed only sound bites about his policy on Iran. The little that is known indicates that Romney is positioning himself as the anti-Obama candidate on Iran – and that his center of gravity revolves around the redlines, positions and policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Romney’s criticism against Obama centers on three main points: That Obama betrayed the Iranian people by not overtly supporting the Green Movement in 2009, that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus by not being serious about military force and red lines on Iran, and that Obama has not been serious about sanctioning Iran.

In my interviews with both Green Movement leaders and street activists for my book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012), it became clear that the accusation that Obama betrayed the Iranian people is off the mark. The leaders of the Green Movement were actually concerned that Obama would express support for them, fearing that America’s endorsement would discredit them inside Iran. “We had hoped he would say nothing, actually,” a Moussavi strategist told me. “[We] didn’t want anyone to play into the hands of conservatives. We were worried that [the Obama administration] might say something stupid. That they would make life more miserable for us.”

Obama’s balancing act was also supported by the Europeans, who were “basically grateful that [the Americans] weren’t putting their foot in their mouths,” according to an EU diplomat.

However, as the Iranian regime’s violence against its own citizens became increasingly brutal and the human rights abuses intensified, frustration with Obama’s careful approach grew accordingly in Iran. Obama waited until June 23, 2009, to condemn the violence in Iran. Prior to that, all statements expressed criticism, but did not condemn the actions of the Iranian government. This disillusionment with Obama was particularly strong among the street activists who, over the course of the summer of 2009, began demanding a bolder American posture.

Still, as the journalist Omid Memarian has argued, the line Romney advocates would “have ended the political life of the pro-democracy movement in Iran, which remains the only hope for real change in the country.” While Obama’s approach was too focused on the nuclear issue and insufficient when it came to the moral support America could have offered the Iranian people, it was by no means a betrayal. (In fact, if anything, Obama’s betrayal of the Iranian people was arguably committed later, when he adopted increasingly blind and indiscriminate sanctions on Iran.)

Secondly, Romney criticizes Obama for having “thrown Israel under the bus” by not being serious about military force and red lines on Iran. There is little doubt that tensions have risen significantly between Israel and the United States during the past four years, much of it due to diverging perspectives on how to handle the Palestinian issue, Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab Spring. But Obama has done nothing even close to throwing Israel under the bus. On the contrary, as I explain here, it is the government of Netanyahu that has actively and deliberately sought to undermine Obama’s diplomatic strategy with Iran.

Listening to his generals, Obama resisted the pressure from Netanyahu to adopt a red line with Iran that essentially would mean that the United States would have to go to war with Iran right away. But Obama did concede a very critical point to Netanyahu: he very publicly put his red line at weaponization, making clear that if the Iranians were to begin building a bomb (as compared to just engaging in low-level enrichment activities), he would take military action.

Rightly or wrongly, the Bush administration never adopted that red line with North Korea. Had they done so, and had they acted on it, the United States would have gone to war with nuclear North Korea in October 2006. Today, the United States might still have been at war with that country – a proposition not even the most hawkish voices in Washington advocate.

It is unlikely that Romney would have yielded even more to the Israelis on this issue, lest he would overrule the firm advice from his generals – the same advice George W. Bush decided not to disregard.

The most inaccurate criticism from the Romney campaign against the Obama administration is that the president has not been serious about sanctioning Iran. Reality is that Obama has sanctioned Iran more than any other president, and by building an international coalition against Iran – something the Bush administration did not achieve, and which the Republicans in Congress lobbied against – Tehran is now facing one of the strictest sanctions regimes in history. Mindful of the Romney campaign’s apparent inclination to go it alone à la George Bush, Romney would arguably achieve far less in this area than Obama has. In fact, as my colleague Reza Marashi points out, some in Tehran may hope for a Romney victory precisely because of the calculation that Romney will not be able to sustain the international sanctions regime against Iran.

The most decisive difference between the two sides, however, is their attitudes toward diplomacy. In spite of a strong start, the Obama administration did not invest sufficient political capital into diplomacy at the end of the day. Nor did Tehran. There are some indications that Obama in a second term will have greater maneuverability to double down on diplomacy and that, hopefully, Tehran will follow suit.

Romney, however, is not likely to go down the path of negotiations, and even if he does, he won’t have the ability to do so until later in 2013 (whereas Obama can hit the ground running already in the second week of November 2012).

This is a crucial difference, since the only thing that may prevent a military confrontation down the road is a sincere effort to fully explore the diplomatic option as soon as possible after the US elections.

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