Why both candidates got it wrong on Iran
October 23rd, 2012
10:26 AM ET

Why both candidates got it wrong on Iran

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own.

Iran took center stage Monday night at President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney’s third and final presidential debate. But any Iranian leader watching the debate will have walked away happy. While Obama and Romney both spoke about augmenting pressure on Tehran, and their opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb, neither offered a prescription that will force the Iranian government to abandon its program. Nor did either candidate suggest that the threat posed by Iran was not simply nuclear weapons, but rather the regime that would wield them.

Obama’s talking points were more about politics than policy. He was quick to claim credit where none is due. While his policy now centers on sanctions, the pressure Iran now faces came despite Obama’s policy rather than because of it. Obama entered office determined to engage Iranian leaders diplomatically. “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” he declared less than a week after taking his oath of office. To claim credit for rallying the international coalition against Iran is to exaggerate: After all, during the Bush administration, the same coalition passed four unanimous or near unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions to demand Iran suspend enrichment and to target sanctions toward Tehran’s nuclear program.

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Rather than augment these sanctions, Obama initially weakened them. By promising to negotiate with Iran without preconditions, Obama unilaterally waived hard-fought Security Council demands that Iran first suspend uranium enrichment. Hence, Obama’s debate statement that “Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place” was nothing short of political chutzpah.

Perhaps Obama learned on the job. It is true that sanctions now bite Iran, and it is good that Obama appreciates this. But then why did Obama oppose the imposition of the most effective sanctions? The United States instituted banking sanctions only after the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them over the objections of the administration.

While Obama denied a recent report that Washington and Tehran had agreed on direct talks, his subsequent suggestion about “potentially having bilateral discussions” should raise a big question mark over where the president’s true instincts lay.

For his part, Romney was right to reiterate that the red line should be an Iranian nuclear capability rather than nuclear weapons themselves – after all, the difference between capability and weapons acquisition might only be the two weeks it takes to construct a weapon – he did not go far enough to enunciate how he would resolve the Iranian threat. True, Romney is right that the United States should have imposed crippling sanctions early and often, but sanctions alone will not defeat Iran. They must be part of a coherent and comprehensive strategy. Perhaps this is why Romney also suggested isolating Iranian diplomats. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent visit to the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, however, should have underlined the futility of trusting the international community to do the right thing.

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While Romney’s promise to pursue an indictment against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide is interesting, that too did not go far enough. In Iran, the president is about style, not substance. It is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots. It is he, and not Ahmadinejad, that Romney should target. Indeed, it was Khamenei who declared that “the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted” and that “the perpetual mission of Iran is the elimination of Israel.” That Romney focused on Ahmadinejad and not Khamenei suggests confusion about the real stakeholders in the Iranian system.

While both candidates paid lip service to military action as a last resort, neither recognized that the Iranian nuclear challenge will not end with military action. Bombing Iranian facilities might delay the regime’s nuclear ambitions but will not end them. Unless there is a policy in place to take advantage of that delay, attacking Iran simply kicks the can down the road at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. The United States should not bomb Iran every three years because the president is afraid to enunciate the simple fact that it is the Iranian regime, and not its arsenal, which is the true problem.

Indeed, such recognition was the missing piece in the candidates’ discussion. Neither Obama nor Romney expressed a vision about what Iran could become if freed from the yoke of the ayatollahs’ dictatorship. Romney came closest when he criticized Obama for ignoring the Iranian people in the 2009 post-election unrest, but he did not elaborate how he would recapture that lost moment.

It is possible: Just as Ronald Reagan supported striking shipyard workers in Poland, Iranian labor leaders yearn for Western support. While President Bush sought to empower Iranian civil society, Obama has taken democracy support programs in Iran down to almost zero. What would Romney do? He did not say. Once upon a time, candidates assumed Soviet permanence, but it turned out that “evil empire” was an empty shell. It is tragic that in a contest to determine the leader of the free world, and in a campaign in which both candidates have sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, neither saw fit to mention liberty. Iran’s people deserve better.

You can follow Rubin on Twitter @mrubin1971.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Iran • Israel • Middle East • Mitt Romney

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. But I don't

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    October 23, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  2. Quigley

    I fully agree with Michael Rubin here. Both candidates definately got it wrong when it came to Iran! Yes, Obama is very quick to claim credit where none is due! In fact, Barack Obama promised back in his 2008 campaign that he would engage the Iranians only to renegge later for the sake of political correctness! Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is only talking about "getting tougher" with Iran. Haven't either one of these clowns ever heard of diplomacy? Evidently not! How disgusting this is!

    October 23, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      I have some news for you... Diplomacy works ONLY when the other side is willing to listen. As long as Iranian leaders are not willing to listen to diplomatic WORDS some other measures should be taken to convince them and these measures may include sanctions and (in case sanctions will not succeed) use of force.

      October 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
      • yasi

        Peaceful dialogue is the ONLY way forward for humanity. It does take two sides to have diplomatic talks. Unfortunately when it comes to foreign policy, the U.S. usually likes to dictate to other countries instead of having two way talks where the other point of view is heard and respected. Over 1,500,000 civilians have been murdered by the U.S. during the 10+ year war with Iraq and Afghanistan. A war that was based on LIES. I don't support the government of Iran, but the United States has been murdering innocent people under the guise of war for a decade now! To pretend that the U.S. military is there to protect ANYONE is a farce that only the brainwashed masses of this country have fallen for. The United States has 800+ nuclear weapons and is the ONLY country in the world to have used them (twice) on other people. Israel has 200+ secret nuclear weapons and allows NOONE in the international community to inspect them. To claim that 1 nuclear weapon in Iran would threaten any of these countries is a blatant lie. There is something called "mutual assured destruction" and EVERY world leader is aware of it. All the wars and war mongering in the Middle East is so that Americans can have cheap gasoline and continue their wasteful little lives. The U.S. and Israel are the two biggest threats to world peace at this moment.

        October 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
      • LL

        I'm guessing that the name Yassi is an Irainian version of Jasmine. You can go back to your well and wait for the Medi.

        October 23, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
      • Thinker23

        yasi... Most people do not have a problem wit cops carrying guns but they have a problem with violent murderers carrying the very same guns. It's not HAVING a gun that is a problem but WILLINGNESS TO USE IT. Israel does not have any reason to attack peaceful Iran. ON the other hand, Iran has repeatedly promised to its own people and to the neighboring Arab states that Israel will be destroyed when Iran will get nukes. Finally, the Mutually Assured Destruction only works with rationally thinking enemies valing their own lives. It does not work with suicidal fanatics of the 9/11 terrorist variety... and we should not forget the words of Ayatolla Rassanjani declaring that sacrificing half of Iranian population would be acceptable if Israel would be destroyed.

        October 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The author is another admirer of Ronald Reagan and most probably sails in the same boat as John Bolton. Now he vented his displeasure with Mitt Romney, who was more moderate during the debate, to the dismay of the neocons.
        Not all words can be translated into actions. That's where diplomacy comes in and one has to have the skill and wit to navigate a ship in stormy and murky waters.

        October 24, 2012 at 7:38 am |
      • LoveOur Allie Israel

        To YASI:
        This is the reason Iran CANNOT get their hands on EVEN ONE nuclear weapon....as stated above...Khamenei declared that “the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted” and that “the perpetual mission of Iran is the elimination of Israel.” .... AND If you know anything about geography YASI then you know that Israel is the SIZE OF RHODE ISLAND, you do the math!
        It would only take ONE, Needless to say, and anyone who knows ANYTHING about America, Israel and Iran would KNOW THAT .... (And would also know that we would do everything in our power for that NOT TO HAPPEN and RIGHTFULLY SO)
        Last thing...you should SERIOUSLY read up on casualties of Israelis, and Americans before you open your mouth about murder and death rates... Iran has done their fair share of murdering as well....You are NO AMERICAN Yasi and you should really get your facts straight before spewing a bunch of lies!

        October 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  3. Marcuscassius

    When did Murdoch buy CNN?

    October 23, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
  4. Lsao Kim Chen

    The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power. The Talibans brought them down in a few days with some BB guns.

    October 23, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  5. John Tatum

    A very thoughtful piece and well stated in my opinion. I do worry that this correct path, the empowerment of Iran's labor movement, cannot be successful in the time period available. Not mentioned (but worse) is whether the secular dictatorship would actually stretch to using nuclear weapons or materials against its own people to confront a local uprising; we have seen the pre-cursor to the actions in their closest ally – Syria.

    Given these constraints, does 'kicking the can down the road' 3-5 years give the entire world some breathing room?

    The truth is that US foreign policy is kept primarily by a very stable bureaucracy, tied to a history of statement and agreements, and limited by international alliances. There are limits to what either Presidential candidate can do independently. This can be seen in the measured remarks from both parties toward critical issues.

    One thing rang true from both candidates; the stronger our economy and the economy of our allies, the stronger our foreign policy position.

    October 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  6. Freelance Freedom Fighter

    "Iranian labor leaders yearn for Western support". ABSOLUTELY NOT! I'm Iranian and I tell you no one even most anti regime people in Iranian society want any association with such a imperialist pig of a government. In fact if USrael had not been bullying the Iranian government and make daily sanctions and threats, mullahs had been overthrown long ago. American and western governments helped mullahs solidify their grip from beginning of Iranian revolution starting with encouraging and helping Saddam attack Iran. We Iranians are too smart for your selfish, colonialist mentality to fall for your Orwellian new speak. Just stop sticking your bloody nose in our business and we can handle our own problems.

    October 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Somehow I do not recall Israeli or American leaders declaring that the regime in Tehran should be "erased from the page of time" or that the Persian state did not have a right to exist. Do you?

      October 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Don't you consider supporting and arming Hezbollah, Hamas and other similar organizations of fanatic mass murderers to be "sticking Iranian bloody nose" in Israeli business? YES OR NO?

      October 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  7. Darin Self

    Both candidates seemed to try to top the other on how disastrous they can make the Iran situation. I've done a cross national analysis on the effect of sanctions and found they're most effective at pushing countries away from democracy than coercion. When you sanction a state like Iran with their regime type you're only going to empower the few at the top. This will make it more unlikely that they will appeal to US interests.

    http://d-runspoliticalopinion.blogspot.com/2012/10/want-to-destroy-democracy-just-use.html

    October 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Darin... Did your "cross national analysis" offered a BETTER way to convince Iranian leaders to drop their nuclear ambitions. Please realize that as long as you're unable to offer a BETTER alternative to sanctions (and, possibly, use of force) against Iran to achieve this goal sanctions (and, possibly, use of force) will remain THE BEST way to convince Iranian leaders to drop their nuclear ambitions you can offer. It makes little sense to complain that the BEST is not good enough.

      October 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  8. Max

    We are unable to debate, much less formulate a rational policy toward Iran because a strain of religious-ultra-nationalist has taken over our political discourse when it comes to foreign policy as well as many social issues. American foreign policy has been reduced to threats and use of force.

    October 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      What is the "rational foreign policy toward Iran" would YOU formulate?

      October 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Now your statement here is one of most sensible ones I've seen yet. Thank you, Max. I'm getting sick and tired of all these ignorant Iran bashers here who can't think their way out of a wet paper bag!!!

      October 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  9. 100 % ETHIO

    We hire people based on their qualifications stated on their resumes. So, who is the most qualified candidate, to be the next US President?
    ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿?????????????

    Based on UN and NAM rules and the upcoming Iran regime, Iran outsmarting US and their is no political and material debate left for US, to accuse Iran.
    And Iran also must stop its bombastic actions. We are witnessing Saddam Hussein and other Arabs empty bombastic acts before.

    America has power. If you don't know, look back and get proofs for yourself (Iran).

    Take for example, the whole World do listen and obey America, including people within Iran. Iran has no any power to make sanction against America. No one will listen! But, America proved it, it sanctioned Iran, just within few Minutes, sanctions can be validated around the World.

    So, now who is the BOSS!?

    Clear answer is, AMERICA IS A BOSS!! It is proven.

    So, forget the reality and whatever rules. But, bowing to America is the only choice for Iran, to save its ass.

    Am I wrong?

    October 23, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  10. ronvan

    Take a look at the picure at the top of this post! THIS Is the Iranian leader, or at least one of them! THEY say nothing about Iran obtaining nukes! THEY support it! Along with their religion that ALL the infidels, that is US, must be destroyed! THEY were offered an opportunity to talk. They refused! This is because their religion teaches that their Qur'an says it is their DUTY to destroy the infidels! ALL OF THEM!!! You CANNOT talk or deal with religious fanatics!

    October 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  11. Dave

    Axis of evil (US, UK, Israel) ex salve owners, colonists, warmongers and their evil doer stooges are plotting to deprive the middle east yet again from freedom to choose their own destiny so the axis of evil and their co conspirators can steal their natural resources and deprive the deprived needy to benefit the Zio corporations to feed their fitly greed for waste and corrupt power structure. Peace, stability, and prosperity will only come to the world and the middle east upon exodus of these evil doer pirates of dignity, freedom, human right, and prosperity from the region contrary to their evil lying claims!?

    October 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  12. Dave

    Axis of evil doers (US, Uk, Israel) create the mayhem and the situation for interference in the region by plotting to over throw the legitimately elected governments in the region (i. e. 1953 Iran, 1971, Guatemala, Chile, Saudi 1944, Egypt 1953, etc). Since WWII over 40 democratically elected governments around the world have been directly or indirectly toppled by theses evil doers with the leadership of the great Satan (USA) and replaced with a puppet dictator to promote evil doers Zio Islam like Saudi to cut heads, and denying women the right to drive and to vote to create a fake enemy riding on the lack of the knowledge of the public about the facts to capitalize its evil agenda to sell arms and kill the deprived to feed the zio corporations illegitimate greed. One can have anything printed in these Zio news mouthpieces with the right price just like the CNN international receiving funds from Bahrain axis of evil dictator puppet to shy away from the Bahraini revolution!?

    October 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply

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