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On Iran, what’s the difference between Obama and Romney?

What’s the difference between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Iran? Last night’s vice presidential debate brought to the fore some of the contrasts that we’ve seen between the two tickets on the issue.

First, the two tickets have differed in how they describe the threshold that the Iranians must be prevented from crossing. Romney has generally said that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear weapons “capability.” (Romney this week said that this is the same “test” embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.) By contrast, Obama has said that Iran must not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon. (A senior administration official has described this as the president’s “red line.”)

While some Romney critics suggest that the “capability” threshold is not well defined, it’s also not clear exactly where Obama would draw the line in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In a dig at Obama’s approach, Romney foreign policy adviser Eliot Cohen said that the GOP nominee “would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon.” But it’s doubtful that Obama would say he would be content with Iran being a screwdriver’s turn away either.

One hawk, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote that Romney has “has outlined an Iran policy that doesn’t differ markedly from Mr. Obama’s.” At one point, Romney himself appeared to forget that he had a different position than the president on the issue, omitting the word “capability” in an interview and then seeming to affirm that he and the president had the same red line. While Romney’s campaign quickly clarified, the slip-up illustrated just how slippery the actual differences between the candidates are.

But some potentially differing implications of the two candidates’ stances seemed to come into clearer relief at last night’s vice-presidential debate.

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Ryan repeatedly referred to stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Nothing so new there. (Romney also just updated his campaign website to note the "capability" threshold.)

Biden, however, kept emphasizing that even if Iran acquired enough enriched uranium for a weapon, it would still need to have a weapon to put it in. He said that “they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.” By focusing so insistently on the weapon issue, Biden seemed to be shifting the focus away from enrichment, which would appear to be a more specific interpretation of the no-weapon threshold than we had heard previously from the Obama administration.

A second area on which the two tickets have clashed is over how the U.S. should be conveying to Iran that it is serious about the possibility of using force.

The Romney campaign argues that the Obama administration has failed to convey a credible threat. “What the administration has done is broadcast to Tehran, to the mullahs in Tehran, that military action is the absolute one thing America doesn’t want anybody to do,” Romney-Ryan adviser Dan Senor said last month. “So the threat of military action isn’t credible.”

Obama and Biden have responded by suggesting that Romney is either engaged in coy warmongering or actually wants war.

This dynamic was readily apparent in the debate as well.

Ryan argued that the Iranians needed to be convinced that the U.S. is prepared to use force and complained that Obama administration officials have been sending “mixed signals.”

“They say the military option’s on the table, but it’s not being viewed as credible, and the key to do this peacefully is to make sure that we have credibility,” Ryan said. “Under a Romney administration, we will have credibility on this issue.”

Biden, in turn, asked Ryan: “You’re talking about doing more, are you going to war? Is that what you want to do now?” (Ryan replied: “We want to prevent war.”)

The Romney campaign is saying that the Obama administration needs to talk tougher, while Obama and Biden are hammering their Republican opponents for too much “loose talk.”

When debate moderator Martha Raddatz asked the two vice presidential contenders which would be worse — a nuclear-armed Iran or a war — Ryan was forthright in saying that an Iran with nuclear weapons was the more dangerous scenario.

Biden, by contrast, did not answer as directly. Biden said that “war should always be the absolute last resort.” But he also echoed Obama’s past statements on the issue of all options being on the table, saying: “This president doesn’t bluff.”

Does the Romney-Ryan ticket’s willingness to talk tougher mean they would be more likely to use force? And is that even the main issue, or is the more important question how the Iranians perceive U.S. intentions?

President Obama’s former Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, said back in August that he is “absolutely convinced President Obama will use force if all else fails.”

But at the same time, Ross also apparently expressed the concern that Iran did not think that the U.S. will strike. “For diplomacy to work, Iran has to believe that failed diplomacy will lead to a U.S. use of force,” Ross said.

 

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