In an otherwise predictable foreign policy debate Monday night, in which GOP challenger Mitt Romney struck a more centrist tone and agreed with many of President Barack Obama’s positions, did the president actually tack to the right on Iran?
That was the view of Iran expert Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and one of this country’s top Iran experts, who suggested that when the president stated that his goal is to “end Iran’s nuclear program” he “appeared to shift the goal post on Iran.”
“On three occasions during the debate, Obama stated that the goal was to ‘end Iran’s nuclear program,’” Parsi wrote in Al-Monitor, a website about the Middle East. “That contradicts previous statements and hints that Obama, in a negotiated settlement, would accept a cap on enrichment below 5 percent under strict inspections. The administration knows very well if Obama’s statement in the debate — which was kept vague — means a return to George W. Bush’s zero-enrichment objective, there won’t be a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.
“Conceivably, the president kept his statement vague to sound tough in the debate while retaining flexibility at the negotiating table. But it was still a statement that appeared to move Obama closer to Bush on Iran — precisely what the president accused [Republican Presidential nominee Mitt] Romney of.”
Such a position is also counter to the Non-Proliferation Treaty — which Iran signed in 1978 and ratified in 1970 — that gives Iran the legal right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In 1974, Iran signed the Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that allows inspections to verify that nuclear enrichment for peaceful nuclear energy is not diverted to nuclear weapons.
Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary Magazine, said Obama “staked out some new ground on Iran in an effort to curry favor with pro-Israel voters” but in the process precluded the sort of compromise “the foreign policy establishment and Europe favors.”
But although Tobin said Obama could not have been clearer, he said people were starting to say “we shouldn’t have believed our ears when he said that.”
He was referring to Daniel Treiman, who wrote in JTA’s Capital J blog that "it seems possible that the president was referring more narrowly to a weapons-oriented program."
Romney insisted in the debate that as president he would take steps to ensure that Iran does not become nuclear-weapons-capable.
“It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us,” Romney said.
At another point in the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Obama spoke of the importance of preventing Iran from developing a “breakout capacity” — that is accumulating so much enriched uranium that it could be made into weapons before the U.S. has a chance to act.
Although throughout much of the debate Romney agreed with Obama on issues like the need for drone strikes, the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the assassination of Osama bin Laden, there were other contrasting views.
Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was struck by Romney’s first answer that the United States can’t “kill our way out of terrorism.” It was in stark contrast to some of Romney’s more hawkish-sounding positions he had staked out earlier in the campaign.
“He said there needs to be a wider response, a comprehensive strategy,” Husain said. “He identified a weakness of this administration, but he didn’t go into details. … His instincts on this are correct. There is a wider mood music that has to be switched off.”
He explained that the “entire narrative in global Muslim communities is one of anti-Americanism and a feeling that the world has done contemporary Muslims wrong. This is the world that al-Qaeda swims in. We have to show that we are not at war with Muslims and that Israel does not aim to dominate the Middle East or make Arabs servile. It seeks to exist as a small nation in peace with its neighbors. Those are the facts most Arabs on the streets of the Middle East don’t grasp.
Romney was trying to address the bigger picture from which terrorism stems — the broader narrative — and to me it was a wise point.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he was pleased to see Obama making a “push towards demonstrating his support for Israel more strongly than he has in the past.”
As Obama put it, “Israel is a true friend, [our] greatest ally.”
Steinberg said it was “surprising to hear him talk of the large joint [American-Israeli] military exercise about to take place. The fact that he mentioned it as part of his case to claim he is supporting Israel and wants credit for it increased the cynicism of those people who believed the exercise was staged for the election.”
Obama described the exercises as evidence of the “strongest military cooperation in history.”
Steinberg said that by agreeing with Obama’s handling of so much of American foreign policy, Romney was demonstrating that “no matter who becomes president, American policies are bounded by certain principles — and that going to war is an absolute last option.”
Romney stressed that point when asked what his response would be if the Israeli prime minister called to say that Israel had just launched a military strike on Iran. Romney said it could never get to that point because the two countries talk all the time and that a military option would be pursued only if all else failed.
But Romney criticized Obama for not initiating sooner the crippling sanctions now in place, which he said means that the world is “four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”
Asked what the U.S. should do if Iran attacked Israel, Obama said Israel could be assured that his administration would “stand with Israel.”
Romney responded: “If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.”
Those two answers, Steinberg said, “reinforce the distance Obama still has with Israel and particularly on Iran. He had an opportunity to spell it out and didn’t.”
Regarding the fact that Romney mentioned the need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and that Obama never mentioned the Palestinians, Steinberg pointed out that during Obama’s “first years in office the Palestinians were a central theme” of his administration.
“Now when he makes no mention of them, cynics can see that as an attempt to get the Jewish vote in Florida and Ohio,” he said.
But Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said he was just in Israel and believes that if re-elected Obama plans to make a major effort towards attaining an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
“My understanding is that he is determined to do something about it — that he is prepared to put some political capital behind it,” he said. “If he succeeds, it would be one of his legacies. If not, he wants to leave the White House as someone who gave it his best effort. Either way, he would look better if he tried.”
Asked about reports that should he be re-elected Obama would fly to Israel early in his next term, Ben-Meir replied: “I have been advocating that for months. … It is important for him to go to Israel, look them in the eye and tell them why it is crucial to resolve this issue. Remember, one trip to Israel by [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat changed public opinion in Israel overnight.”
“I think Obama’s position on this issue is more realistic than Romney’s,” Ben-Meir said, referring to Romney’s closed-door remarks about kicking the Palestinian issue down the road.
During the debate, Romney questioned Obama’s support for Israel, pointing out that Obama “skipped Israel” despite making three trips to the region.
Obama quickly countered, stating: “I went to Israel as a candidate. I didn’t take fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I went to Sderot and saw families who showed me where missiles had fallen from Gaza. We funded Iron Dome. That’s how I’ve used my travels.”
But Steinberg said there is a “huge difference between coming during the campaign and when you are president. As an Israeli, I thought it was a weak response.”
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that despite the occasional disagreements on foreign policy Romney generally agreed with Obama’s policies.
“There was more consensus on key issues than at any time since the Cold War,” he said. “It was stunning that so much of the debate was devoted to the economy and the lack of differences between the candidates.”
Miller suggested that part of the reason for the unanimity was a “tactical” decision by Romney.
“He softened his image to attract independent voters and projected an image that it’s safe to change — to counter the notion that he would be a martial president,” Miller said.
“I think he felt the public is not focused on [foreign affairs], that the numbers may show the debate is a wash, and that the primary issue is whom the American public blames for the terrible economic developments and who is going to fix it,” he added.