October 23rd, 2012
03:28 PM ET

Candidates treading fine line on Iran

By Erik Voeten, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Erik Voeten is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Government. He blogs at The Monkey Cage. The views expressed are his own.

Last night’s foreign policy debate contained few surprises. As expected, both candidates sought to bring the focus back to domestic issues whenever they could. Each candidate vied to convince the public that he loved Israel more and that he would be tougher on China. Each tried to sound strong without coming across as bellicose. David Brooks observed in the post-debate analysis that Romney mentioned peace more than George McGovern ever did. On most issues, Romney did not disagree much with the strategies pursued by the Obama administration. He just claimed that he would have executed them better.

This is not unusual. On foreign policy, the candidates mostly try to persuade the public that they are competent. Partisan differences towards foreign policy issues are relatively minor, at least during this election season. The key is to convince the public that when you are in charge, Americans will be safer and more prosperous, more “bad guys” will be killed, and more “good guys” will live happy productive lives and thank the United States of America for it.

There was one pressing foreign policy issue on which the two candidates did have notably different strategies: Iran. Both candidates agree that the United States should be willing to use force to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Both candidates also see military action as a “last resort.” Yet, they presented vastly different strategies on how to prevent war.

Americans still underestimate the urgency of the Iranian issue. Since no candidate seems eager to enter into war – and the Iranians also seem unexcited about that prospect – it must surely be that war can easily be avoided or delayed? This is not necessarily true. To start with, the decision to launch an attack may come very soon in the next presidency. Analysts estimate that by the spring of 2013, Iran will possess sufficient 20 percent uranium to convert into weapons-grade uranium for one bomb. At that point they are weeks away from developing enough fissile material for a bomb. This does not give them a nuclear weapon. They would still need to build an effective delivery mechanism. Yet once they have the fissile material the U.S. options to stop them become much less attractive. Before then, the U.S. could bomb a few installations with known locations. This would at least set the program back some years. If no further enrichment is needed, then the Iranians can hide the fissile material in different locations. This makes it much more difficult to stop them with military action. And, if that option is off the table, diplomatic routes may also become less likely to succeed.

Why both candidates got it wrong on Iran

In order to avoid a clash, Iran would have to accept a humiliating deal in which it agrees to abandon its nuclear aspirations and subject itself to intense international inspections. How do the two candidates plan to get Iran this far? Obama emphasizes the importance of building coalitions. The argument is that only sanctions that are adhered to by all major players will be sufficiently crippling for Iran to change its calculus. If Iran is isolated, then it will also be much less likely to escalate the conflict in the event of a strike.

The Romney campaign counters that the process of coalition building has resulted in delayed sanctions and vague language that have led both the Iranian and Israeli governments to question the credibility of the U.S. government’s commitment to use force. Romney promises to use tougher language, implement additional unilateral sanctions, and draw a clear red line beyond which Iran cannot go. Romney has also criticized the Obama administration’s openness to bilateral diplomatic solutions, charging that these have allowed the Iranian government to play the delay game.

Each strategy comes with its own risks. The Romney strategy is risky because it leaves the Iranian government with very few opportunities to surrender while saving face. Moreover, it risks alienating those states that are currently partaking in sanctions. This could also leave the U.S. in a difficult position when it is trying to limit escalation after a strike. A risk to the Obama strategy is that it may be perceived as overly conditional on the support of others. Timing is important here. The U.S. and its allies may have different preferences on when exactly Iran has had its last opportunity to comply with international demands. In the absence of explicit multilateral support, Iran could question the credibility of the U.S. willingness to use force unilaterally. Thus, both the Romney and the Obama strategies could lead to a war that we would all like to avoid.

A conflict with Iran could have modest consequences: surgical strikes with few casualties, a brief disruption of oil markets, and a few counterstrikes. But it could easily escalate into a much larger war in the Middle East. The man this country will elect on November 6 will have a lot to do with making sure that we will never find out which way it turns out.

Post by:
Topics: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Foreign Policy • Iran • Middle East • Mitt Romney

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    October 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      Ignorant rednecks are what ignorant rednecks say.

      October 26, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  2. Mr.spock

    Any attack on Iran will lead the a much larger conflict. Iran has the means to put on fire all oil facilities in ME and I am sure they are not stupid to NOT use this option if they face an attack. This will cause a great shortage of oil world wide and cause a world wild conflict to get the remaining oils on the earth

    October 23, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      No one will attack PEACEFUL Iran. On the other hand, if there will be no other way to prevent Iran from attacking other countries or from acquiring nuclear weapons force WILL BE USED. Using force against Iran is not a matter of choice it's a matter of necessity.

      October 23, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
      • Mr.spock

        BS. IF iran obtain nukes without using them or attacking other countries there would be no reason for a war. Many countries have nukes and Iran is no exception

        October 23, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Sorry, Mr. Spock, but no cigar... Iranian leaders already PROMISED their own people as well as the neighboring Arab states that they will get nukes and will use these nukes to destroy Israel. If they'll get nukes and will start hesitating there will be no shortage of contenders who will declare that these "traitors of Islam" and Zi0nist agents" should be removed and that they, the contenders, will follow the Prophet's order and will destroy Israel. It should not be difficult to realize that Israel can not and will not sit idle waiting to be nuked... For Israel Iranian threats combined with a perspective of Iranian nukes IS a pretty convincing reason for using force against Iran.

        October 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
      • Brian

        Thinker, you really don't seem to understand the nature of nuclear weapons nor what Islam is actually about.

        October 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
      • kev

        Iran hasn't attacked in country since the 1700s you peanut!

        October 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  3. 100 % ETHIO

    "How do the Two candidates plan to get Iran this far?"

    Ironically, war with Iran will have more consequences, unless something within Iran people inside Iran happened, like the MidEast uprising.
    The MidEast uprising gave US more opportunities. We did not lost anything. We were more observant than participant. At the main time, US were strategical and political advisor-technically, for those freedom seekers.
    Would the same thing could happen in Iran?

    What will be our excuse to go after Iran, if the current regime will be replaced by the upcoming Iran election? If the election goes in favour of the majority of Iran?
    @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

    Whether the next Four years of U.S. President is Republic or Democratic, the challenges of upcoming foreign policy and war will be unimaginable. Unless some miraculous things happened.

    October 23, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  4. ronvan

    COMMON FOLKS!!! There is a BIG difference in countries that have nukes and Iran! Iran's leaders have vowed to wipe out Isreal!! That alone makes them different and dangerous. While I totally agree with sanctions, sadly, I can see this ending with the U. S. A. being "forced" to help Isreal to blast Iran out of a nuke capability. I have always said that to mess with Isreal is like playing with a rattlesnake. Sooner or later you are going to get bit, and Isreal doesn't play games very well when it comes to some "crazy fanatic" saying he will destroy them! They will strike and it will not be pretty! I wonder what WE would do if someone threatened to destroy us, like muslims?

    October 24, 2012 at 12:52 am | Reply
    • Brian

      Muslims haven't threatened to destroy us. You're an idiot.

      October 26, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
  5. ALI

    MESSAGE TO THE HARD HEARTED, STIFF NECK AND REBELLIOUS

    THE PAIN OF CHANGE

    This is the toughest and most challenging de- motivator for many people, groups, businesses, states and nations. I HOPE WE ALL WILL MAKE THE SPECIAL EFFORT TO CONQUER IT.
    Why does change always seem to involve pain? We resist change because it means that part of our old self must die, and that an unknown new self will be born. We grieve the loss of the familiar as we labor through the painful birth of the new life. It all seems so primitive.
    We resist change because we almost instinctively believe that changing and aging are somehow linked. If we could just stop change, we could stay young, runs this desperate and touchingly human hope. You see this futile hope in people young and old who wear the styles of five or twenty-five years ago, who hold onto the manners and viewpoints of yesteryear, who stubbornly cling to methods that were effective in a time gone by.
    There is a place for nostalgia in our lives. It can be comforting and fun. But even antique dealers have to keep up with the times to stay in business. Meanwhile, the inevitable forces of change are modifying how it is by making that way unprofitable and phasing out those who are not changing. We can fight the forces of change and win some victories against it- but we can’t win the war. In the end, we change or lose.
    Success avoids fights it can’t win. Instead of fighting an unbeatable force, success uses it to win victories. Real Success adores change.
    We are now overdue for change. Excess has exceeded all limits and crossed the Red line.
    It is time to conquer your fear and LEAN FORWARD WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA for four more years.

    I AM, WHO I AM, AND I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE.

    October 24, 2012 at 1:25 am | Reply
    • sean

      well said sir

      October 26, 2012 at 12:47 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The author has to understand that both candidates don't present a perfect solution. Of the two options, Obama's is the lesser of two evils. Romney's is too rigid and on top of that, he and his hawkish advisors are not good at playing by ear and handling the situation as it comes. As there are so many players involved, it's always difficult to predict and one has to be flexible at times and play by ear.

    October 24, 2012 at 6:38 am | Reply
  7. Prof. Taheri

    The details of an Israeli attack on Iran are revealed in Jonathan Bloomfield’s award-winning book, “Palestine.”

    October 24, 2012 at 9:46 am | Reply
  8. ronvan

    Whatever happens on this subject I will bet you a penny that it will be Isreal that strikes first! They have a vested interest in making sure IRAN does not get nukes! Dummyjad has stated, more than once, that he wants Isreal destroyed!

    October 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      It isn't America's concern either. Iran isn't ruled by idiots. They won't use a nuclear weapon because they would be stomped on by the entire world. If Israel wants to pick a fight with Iran, let them. Not a single America dollar or life should be spent fighting for Israel.

      October 26, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
      • Doug Myers

        Brian, you don't sound like a Christian..... Israel is to be protected by God's people. We are a Christian nation regardless of what Obama says.

        October 30, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  9. bribarian

    No more wars for zi0nism.

    October 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  10. gfsd

    Erik Voeten, is a fool with a PhD. War with Iran will have modest consequences? Either he is stupid person who got a PhD with money or completely ignorant.

    October 26, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  11. gfsd

    Completely agree with you, gfsd. Erik Voeten has a Phd or not is not sure here but I do have a PhD in Poli. Sci specializing in Asian countries and teach at Mumbai Univ. I wonder how Mr. Erik so boldy came to conclude that "A conflict with Iran could have modest consequences: surgical strikes with few casualties...".
    Make me think wither he is paid by Israelis and the Republicans to dilute the consequences of the most serious issue of our time.
    Or he has never traveled or lived in the so called "third world countries".

    October 26, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
  12. Ali

    Guys, dont keep repeating lies. Sadly Obama did the same thing.
    Ahmedinejad NEVER said "wipe Israel off the map".
    Even an Israeli minister confirmed that on tv. Google it!

    October 26, 2012 at 9:23 am | Reply
  13. lee

    People of low morality can writte such thing about Iran . Plez read this article.Breaking the golden rule
    Posted By Stephen M. Walt Friday, June 1, 2012 – 12:02 PM Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingnessto do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
    This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran . Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not justthat we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why thetargets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
    Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the"hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer offriendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
    We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinousacts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely - that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged whenothers are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
    And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it untous in return.http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/06/01/breaking_the_golden_rule_0

    October 26, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
    • Oldman

      Well said Sir, but your reply is too Sane for many on this site.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  14. lee

    Morally bankruptcy American nation

    October 26, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
  15. bribarian

    Good news, there will be no more wars for zionism or israel, America has spoken. Not even a falseflag will change it.

    October 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  16. Obama

    I personally do not agree with writer thoughts .It's quite aggressive .I believe ,there should be more effort to be done to make the world peace full place.rather than bombing any country

    October 28, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  17. whatsthat???

    I think most comments here are from people who have no idea whats its like to live near neighbors that want you dead and chant it every day in the masses ... You can watch all the YouTube videos, conspiracy theories videos you like but until you live where Jews live you cant judge their history, their defensive tactics, and YES ahmajin. did say "to wipe Israel off the map" Many times over, when you live near neighbors that want you dead you take every threat seriously!!!!! allot of people here are commenting out of hate for Jews not about facts or made up facts top support their visions or theories.

    October 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply

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