The Election’s Real Foreign Policy Issue: War with Iran

While the handling of the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, continues to capture the attention of the campaigns and the media, the most important foreign policy issue of the election has remained largely unaddressed.

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BROOKS KRAFT / CORBIS FOR TIME

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the second presidential debate at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Oct. 16, 2012.

While the handling of the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, continues to hold the attention of the campaigns and the media, the most important foreign policy issue of the election has remained largely unaddressed: When and how would the U.S. go to war with Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon?

By most accounts, if Iran continues on its current path, it will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the term of the next President. Publicly, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have committed to preventing Iran from getting a weapon and have said military action remains a possibility if necessary. Privately, senior advisers to both men admit that any military action would have catastrophic affects on the international economy, stability in the region and U.S. interests around the world.

Determining the moment when the dangers of a potential Iranian bomb outweigh the dangers of military intervention may be the most important judgment the next President will make.

Tonight the final presidential debate will bring the issue into focus. Obama Administration officials tell the New York Times that Iran has agreed to engage in direct negotiations over its nuclear program. That revelation will frame the issue in a way that helps Obama: the Administration says it has not agreed to talks but can claim a long-sought concession from Iran. Romney will have to argue that the Administration cannot be trusted to be tough with Iran in talks.

(PhotosPolitical Photos of the Week, Oct. 12-18)

One way to avoid a canned exchange on this issue would be to ask both men to assess the efficacy of the current sanctions regime. In a clear, early diplomatic victory, the Obama Administration succeeded in implementing global sanctions against Iran that went well beyond what anyone thought possible at the end of the presidency of George W. Bush. The U.N. and E.U. agreed to and implemented various oil, trade and finance sanctions; the Obama Administration persuaded some individual countries to go further than the new regimes required; and it got others, especially rising powers China and India, to take their own steps to isolate Iran.

But the sanctions regime failed to change Iran’s behavior. Over the past four years, the Iranian nuclear program hasn’t slowed down; it has accelerated. The mullahs cracked down on political dissent during the so-called Green Revolution, and international talks stalled. Sabotage and assassination seemed if anything to harden Tehran’s determination to pursue nuclear-weapons capability. As they had before in Iraq and elsewhere, sanctions seemed to be failing as a policy.

But this month Iran was hit with a currency crisis that cast the sanctions effort in a new light. Amid rampant inflation and a dramatic devaluation of the Iranian currency, protests erupted and resistance to the regime built among the business class. A key question now is whether the crisis is a momentary setback for Iran or a sign that sanctions are finally working. If Tehran’s concession on talks is the result of sanctions, a deal may be possible. If not, the Iranians are likely stalling while they pursue their nuclear program.

Required reading for both campaigns and Monday’s debate moderator, Bob Schieffer, should be the latest nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report (pdf) by veteran analyst Ken Katzman on the state of Iran sanctions (via Steve Aftergood’s indispensable “Secrecy” blog, here).

Katzman concludes, “Many judge that Iran might soon decide it needs a nuclear compromise to produce an easing of sanctions because:

  • Oil exports provide about 70% of Iran’s government revenues and Iran’s oil exports have declined sharply as a result of the sanctions. A European Union embargo on purchases of Iranian crude oil that took full effect on July 1, 2012. Previously, EU countries were buying about 20% of Iran’s oil exports. This embargo is coupled with decisions by several other Iranian oil customers to substantially reduce purchases of Iranian oil in order to comply with a provision of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 112-81).
  • Together, these sanctions have reduced Iranian oil exports to about 1 million barrels per day as of October 2012, a dramatic decline from the 2.5 million barrels per day Iran exported during 2011. This loss of sales has caused Iran to reduce oil production, to the point where it is producing less oil than is Iraq.
  • The loss of hard currency revenues from oil — coupled with the cut off of Iran from the international banking system and the reported depletion of Iran’s foreign exchange reserves — caused a collapse in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, in early October. That collapse prompted street demonstrations and a halt to commerce by merchants who are uncertain how to price their goods. In response, Iran has tried to impose currency controls and arrested some illegal currency traders, although these steps are unlikely to restore public confidence in the regime’s economic management. Other oil producers, particularly Saudi Arabia, are selling additional oil to countries cutting Iranian oil buys, thus far preventing the lost Iranian sales from raising world oil prices.

As the U.S. limps home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Romney and Obama should address explicitly whether they think sanctions are working, whether they should be expanded and under what circumstances they would abandon them in favor of military action.

147 comments
zakirmir
zakirmir

its not America who decide the destiny of other nations , every country has right to defend itself , why does Amercia itself possess atomic bomb, why America supporting israel to become neclear power ,  what are these nonsence stop fooflish talking,

Vincenzo Benincasa
Vincenzo Benincasa

The night’s thought: In Italy there are many roosters that sing and obviously they steal, but not as they make us to understand by TV and by newspapers when they catch common thievish of hens. These last ones are put in media’s pillory to dissuade the collectivity’s thought from the true evil of the Country that has secular origins: the corruption. Who doesn't know what corruption is, he must know that is repeated theft, by who administers both politically and financially, of huge sums of money destined to the civil cohabitation in this State. Money's mountains in the form of “mazzette”, of bribes, of real embezzlements they, for the most part, take the road toward foreign fiscal heavens. In the last forty years you do not imagine really how many coins have been burnt by a great oligarchy of presumed petty politicians and their submitted ones. And you don't think that is only an evil of some regions they define "not virtuous": the corruption and the collusion with gangster’s systems are equal everywhere from the Alps to the islands. The sinister individuals are too many that with dialectics they intend to restore to health the Country, when after all they should go to cultivate the grounds they have cemented. During the Fascist regime the Italian State declared to have some credits and not public debts without end as today, but with this I don't want to rehabilitate the misdoings of Duce. The fascism belongs to the past, as also the brigands' rebellion to the invading Piedmonteses. According to you why every time that to the Senate and in the House of the deputies did they propose outlines of a more severe law in the field of anticorruption, almost all the parties boycott the sessions and even as castrated roosters start to shout standing almost climbing on the sand-banks??? But do you know that the Italian corruption is equal to that of Center Africa’s States like as the Ghana??? A honest man never beats those more weak, rather he looks for, in his possibilities, helping them. Instead, we always see that someone who has an institutional charge unloads his impotence on the young ones, the pensioners and the weakest bands of people. An example is the continuous claims to the under 35 ones they have difficulty to find economic independence and therefore they cannot abandon their parents. They are defined "bamboccioni", "choosy" and even they are induced to abandon the State and to emigrate in unknown Countries. The corruption seems to be the evil of the last two years, when it has origins instead, as it regards the Italian Republic, in the unhappy years of the postwar period. The Kingdom of Italy was chopped in so many regions, provinces, communes, and the ex-subjects were separated even in their same families. Small parliaments rose in all the chief town to mirror the Tower in Babel that is situated in Rome, the capital. There have been so many individuals able to speak the Italian language or perhaps understood such, that are divided before the money of Bank of Italy, and then those drawn from the taxes, from the fines, from the duties, from pretensions that honest workers paid for avoiding the clash with the police. Today they talk about corruption in Parliament, but not about to unify the Country, to remove the privileges from characters without some ethics and to send home whole battalions of men and women that heat the armchairs not only of “Montecitorio”!!! I post again the links to my meditations on the society so that who has not read, can finally do it, hoping they don't prevent me from writing over. My meditations on the society beginning from the economic and social crisis. http://enzobenincasa.homestead.com/social_meditations.pdf only in English language here... In my first and unique novel made enjoyable on line I had outlined toward 2004 the draining soup of the Italy system beginning from the single families… of the South!

Rachael Wise
Rachael Wise

On a totally non election related note, I like your new homepage time. It's very clean.

Norrie McTavish
Norrie McTavish

Yeah go to war America. Your last three attempts have solved so much thank you for keeping world peace.........?

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie More leftist propaganda, there will be no war w Iran when Romney is in the WH

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Godfrey Oba

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Donald January Jr.
Donald January Jr.

Who is the idiot that came up with this question? Not even gonna read the article, but acting like war is the only option when the masses don't even know the whole story is just stupid. In my opinion, the writer shouldn't be trusted.

William Oliver
William Oliver

No war, and I hate how the question assumes we will get into one for sure.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Like war mongering, sanctions mongering will, at some point, push Khameini to green light the bomb. Once Iran demonstrates a nuclear weapon via underground blast, the world will be forced to accept a nuclear Iran. If the sanctions' goals are to stop Iran from attaining the bomb, then the Iranian regime and the people of Iran can make the case that sanctions are no longer valid once they back out of the NPT. It would be morally reprehensible to continue sanctions. We didn't continue sanctions with Pakistan, so we can't do it with Iran. Therefore, everyone either has to accept the following two outcomes: military intervention or containment.

Lu Plonski
Lu Plonski

I suggest we just SEND THEM A FEW via our B'2's

allthingsinaname
allthingsinaname

Romney can bluster, Obama, being the President, has to measure his words on Iran in particular

I think the Press has beat this issue into the ground, and the topics are too narow.

I wonder how a shape shifter is precieved by the international community, unfortunetly the debate does not allow us to see that aspect, and frankly the Press doesn't care.

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

Romney's World =WAR w/ IranCold WAR w/ RussiaWAR PROFITEERINGWorld WAR IIIWAR on WomenWAR on 47%WAR on EnvironmentSecret WAR on Middle ClassNuclear WARARMAGEDDON: Prophecy FulfilledGive HOPE a CHANCE. VOTE the DEMOCRATIC TICKET.

ahandout
ahandout

Well at least Time didn't just suddenly dump the whole blog like the Chicago Sun Times did after the Republicans cleaned up in 2010.  Maybe after the election.  Liberals hate free speech. 

paulejb1
paulejb1

Israel flattened Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981 and then attacked the Syrian nuclear facility in 2011. Neither action led to war. 

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

It's interesting that Mitt claims to be all-about the economy, but surrounds himself with foreign policy advisors that (given a choice) would certainly advocate for preemptive war with Iran.  Such a war would put our economy in-the-tank for the forseeable future.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Obama and allies work to bring Iran on its knees, righties and Mitt fantasize about another war.

There's reality for you.

superlogi
superlogi

While war is always an important issue, if not the most important, no one really believes either of the candidates will suggest war is inevitable, ever, particularly when it something which may or may not occur in the future.  The point is, dealing with present problems is tough enough, something the present administration has a very poor record of.  Dealing with someone's politically motivated prognostications is impossible.

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

Either Bibi knows something that the rest of the world (including the top commanders of Israel's millitary) doesn't, or he is seriously deluding himself into thinking that attacking Iran is a good idea.  Israel lacks the resources to even defeat Hezbollah, which is just a proxy for Iran.  Attacking Iran would galvanize anti-Israeli sentiment world-wide by spiking oil prices.  A more-effective approach may be to settle the Palestinian issue once and for all, taking a popular rallying point against Israel off the table.  

JonathanPollardU.S.SpyTraitor
JonathanPollardU.S.SpyTraitor

FACT: Americans want out of the Middle East. FACT: The evil zionists want America to wage war against Iran for them.FACT: Time magazine is a zionist mouthpiece.FACT: AIPAC is israel's spy agency.FACT: Like the 1954 Lavon Affair, and the israeli attack on the USS Liberty, the zionists will do all they can to keep America at war with their enemies.Shame on those who put the interests of the evil zionists ahead of America's interests.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

"War with Iran" has been a foreign policy issue for years simply because Israel really wants us to do so, not because we're any closer to it actually happening.

paulejb1
paulejb1

"Privately, senior advisers to both men admit that any military action would have catastrophic affects on the international economy, stability in the region and U.S. interests around the world."

More catastrophic than the prospect of crazed Mullahs with nukes?

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DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Who cares about Iran, why did TIME dump Disqus?!

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

Weren't we saying, like 3 years ago, that Iran was a year away?

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

My first impression of Massimo Calabresi's writing was a story about Iran's nuclear program a number of years ago that was absolutely alarmist in it's tone. I'm glad that my first impressions now seem inaccurate but I still have a significant trust issue with the things he writes. 

gysgt213
gysgt213

"Privately, senior advisers to both men admit that any military action would have catastrophic affects on the international economy, stability in the region and U.S. interests around the world."

But neither side will admit this in public.

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

Who is bothered about Romney's career at Bain capital? 'women in binders.' 'Romneysia,' 'abortion,' etc., are the tactics of Team Obama to divert the attention of voters from explosive issues such as deep recession, massive unemployment, trillion dollars debt and failure in foreign policy as witnessed in the murder of ambassador, bloodbath in Syria, dominance of Putin and the defiance of Ahmadinejad. Added to these woes, American cities are today inundated with illegal immigrants after Obama gave them green signal. So the country needs a strong president like Reagan. The very election of Reagan. replacing weak Carter, made Khomeini to free American hostages. In the same manner the very election of Romney, removing spindly Obama, will force Putin, Ahmadijenad and Assad to change their present stiff attitude.

Aspblom
Aspblom

Iran has never demonstrated a willingness to kill all the Palestinians in and around Israel. That IS what would happen if Iran were to attack Israel. Iran's verbal attacks on Israel have been on BEHALF OF the Palestinians. There is no chance of Iran launching an attack on Israel. Who is it that got this fear going? 

JohnDagne
JohnDagne

I have already voted for Gary Johnson, I mailed my ballot last week

JohnEliShuey
JohnEliShuey

Whether Mr. Calabresi's premise is properly stated or not, the truth is that both the GOP and the Nobel Prize candidates for president have indicated their willingness, even desire, to further punish and possibly strike Iran.  Voting for either is quiet acquiescence to more dead Middle Eastern children, and more young Americans returning home mangled or in body bags.  Only Governor Gary Johnson (www.garyjohnson2012.com) has spoken out against this policy,  saying "...I am the only candidate who does not want to bomb Iran...". Americans can decide the direction of our policy over the coming few weeks, and the choice is clear. A vote for either of the Republican-Democratic duopoly is a vote for war; only a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for peace.

curatica
curatica

From the onset, the journalist starts by playing the Zionist card: the "war with Iran" (as it was already a done deal) is not a matter of "if" and "why" but simply of "when" and "how".

Besides the damn Iranians didn't show contrition in the face of the Mossad campaign of sabotage and assassination; how dared they? 

The dangers of a "potential Iranian bomb" are only in the hatred troubled, demented minds of Netanyahu and of his acolytes, Mr. Calabresi.

ThAOSteen
ThAOSteen

@StenRHelland Har presidentvalg blitt utsatt pga krig før? *cough*