With the third and final presidential debate on Monday night set to focus on foreign policy, Iran will once again take center stage. The issue will be all the more charged since the New York Times reported this weekend — and the White House quickly denied — that the U.S. and Iran had all but agreed to new negotiations.
President Obama and Mitt Romney have needled each other plenty on Iran. But what are their actual policy positions, and how far apart are the two candidates? It might not be as much as you think.
If sanctions had been put in place when he first recommended them, Romney told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos last month, Iran's "economy would be on its knees, at this point." Romney would "put the leaders of Iran on notice" if elected, he added in October.
But he's had a hard time laying out exactly what he would do differently than Obama.
The White House has already championed tough sanctions on Iran, and both candidates have said they will do whatever it takes, including taking military action, to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
Here is our look beyond the candidates' rhetoric to see what really separates them.
Two months after he took office, Obama reached out to Iran with a video message announcing that the U.S. was "now committed to diplomacy" to resolve the two nations' differences. When diplomacy failed to halt Iran's nuclear program, Obama turned to sanctions. The administration pushed new sanctions through the United Nations in June 2010, and the U.S. and its European allies have passed several more rounds since then. The most recent U.S. sanctions, which passed in June, are aimed at Iran's oil exports.
(For an exhaustive history of sanctions on Iran, see this recent Congressional Research Service report.)
The sanctions, along with Tehran's economic mismanagement, have crushed Iran's economy. The country's oil exports have fallen from 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to 1.5 million today, and its currency, the rial, has lost 80 percent of its value in the last 10 months.
Paul Ryan criticized the administration for watering down sanctions. "In Congress, I've been fighting for these sanctions since 2009," he said. "The administration was blocking us every step of the way."
Politifact reviewed Ryan's claim and rated it "Mostly False." The Obama administration has pushed for more flexibility in the sanctions Congress has proposed, but only to win the cooperation of other nations. Because decades of U.S. sanctions have already banned most trade with Iran, the new sanctions target other countries that trade with Iran — making international cooperation essential to enforcing them.
Finding a Red Line
The evidence that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon is actually mixed. A National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 reported that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Iran has insisted that their nuclear program is for civilian use only, and the CIA doesn't think Iran has restarted the weapons program. Under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for non-military purposes. But the trick is that a peaceful nuclear program and weapons program involve most of the same steps — until you actually need to build a warhead.
Obama has been clear: He will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon. He has said so publicly at least 20 times since 2008, as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out at The Atlantic. But Obama has refused to set a hard "red line" — short of Iran actually completing a weapon — that he would not allow Iran to cross.
Romney, in contrast, has insisted he has a red line. But he's been unclear about where it is — or how different it is from Obama's position.
In the interview with Stephanopoulos last month, Romney said, "My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon." When Stephanopoulos asked if that meant his red line was the same as Obama's, he said it was. The Romney campaign later added a line to its website, however, stating that, "Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons capability." (BuzzFeed has a rundown of several adjustments the campaign has made to the language in the Iran section of its website.)
The Romney campaign also tried to clarify the issue in an interview with the New York Times. While Obama has pledged to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Eliot Cohen, a Romney adviser, said Romney "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon." He said Romney would keep Iran from obtaining nuclear "capability" — what the Times defined as "the combination of nuclear fuel, the technology to fashion it into a weapon and a delivery device ... that would enable it to build a weapon in a matter of weeks or months." Watch for a question on Romney's views in the debate tonight.
The Israel Element
Much of Romney's criticism of Obama on Iran has been based on the administration's tone. His campaign basically says the administration isn't talking tough enough. Dan Senor, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, told NPR last week that it made the threat of military action less credible when the administration talked about the difficulties with attacking Iran. Those kinds of comments should be made "behind closed doors," he said. "By broadcasting it in public the way the administration has done," he said, "it has sent one message to Tehran — which is that we are absolutely not serious, that the credibility of the threat is not there — and it has sent the exact same message to our allies."
Romney has also tried to position himself as more closely aligned with Israel on Iran. During his trip to Israel in July, Romney said denying Iran nuclear capability should be America's "highest national security priority," and Senor, his adviser, suggested he would support an Israeli strike on Iran. "If Israel has to take action on its own, the governor would respect that decision," Senor said. Romney has also criticized Obama for remarks he made in 2009 suggesting there should be "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel.
Israel, it's worth noting, is divided on the merits of striking Iran. A number of Israel's top military and intelligence officials, including the former head of the Mossad (Israel's CIA), have urged caution.
A Negotiating Window
The biggest difference between Obama and Romney may be how able they are to hit the ground running in January. Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia's Middle East Institute, told us that while he expected Obama and Romney would take similar action, Obama would be better positioned to do so right after the election.
The Iranian election season will kick off in March after Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and may make it difficult to get anything done politically, said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and the author of a book on Obama's diplomacy with Iran. "Before all of that happens," Parsi said, "there is a window for the administration to double down on negotiation and try to get some sort of a deal."
Obama and Romney's willingness to draw a red line at Iran getting a nuclear weapon, Parsi added, was in itself a big break with previous presidents. "If we had that red line with North Korea, we would have gone to war with North Korea," he said. "We would probably still be at war with North Korea."