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.

145 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

Godfrey Oba
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. 

kvossa
kvossa

@Norrie Mctavish unfortunately war isn't usually about establishing peace.

kvossa
kvossa

where did you find this?

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 If you find out that his plans are to set forth motion in Iran, would you still vote for him, soldier?

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 Romney has all but declared it. He's a neocon, a warmonger, an opportunist.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 Ok, everyone but you says so. Hell, Google it yourself. Romney is pushing for war. Bank on it.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@ahandout 

Liberals hate free speech.

Absolute nonsense, when some have argued for banning some of the awful people that troll the swamp most liberals come out to defend them. Only the worst are banned.

You're full of it.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@ahandout If we hated free speech you would have been banned ages ago.  It's not like we would miss your glib comments.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

1981 was a different time an Iran did not have the capabilities that they do now. An air strike on Iran would create attacks from Iranian proxies on US and Israeli interests through the Middle East, spike oil prices world wide and add years if not decades to the current Iranian regime. Put simply the return on investment simple isn't there.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1 If Israel wants to take action on Iran that's their business, I just don't approve of them trying to force us to fight their war for them.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie He has NO plans to do so, idiotic liberals like yourself want to spread that BS to defeat him.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie Wow U know almost nothing about politics or the man, he's FAR from a neocon, you're repeating a nonsensical liberal talking point

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie its not the case that everyone but me says so, this is a desperate attempt by the failing Obama campaign to scare people.

outsider
outsider

@mantisdragon91 mantisdragon91 As it is, we have Syria shelling Turkey, and Lebenon now (well, bombings, not shelling); Turkey is part of the UN, and the Arab League.

WE do NOT want them to keep getting shelled because who supports Syria?

Iran.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 feelings mutual. i'm done w/ this conversation and the wasting of my time w/ a petulant child.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie I just refuse to entertain your comical leftist propaganda, I can't take you seriously.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 I see that you're going to take the "fingers in ears" method of shutting down the conversation. Have fun in "low info land".

Coach63DH
Coach63DH

@mdg10453 Interesting that you don't pay attention to the other side.  I find that I learn more by reading INTELLIGENT views from the other side rather than reading something that I already agree with and already know.  Usually when I do that it solidifies my own opinions.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie I'm plenty well read. I live in NYC and am bombarded by leftist propaganda that you consider to be actual information.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 do the research. I flat out told you not to go on my info, but to find out yourself. I can see you only hear what you want.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie You know BS propaganda so if you consider yourself "informed" that's funny.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 No offense, but I obviously know more much more than you're giving me credit for, or know yourself. Do the research.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@mdg10453 What does having a 'master poly sci' have anything to do with Mitts blustering?

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie Yes a lawyer or he WAS a lawyer b/c both he and his wife had to surrender their law licenses.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 that statement alone is beyond hilarious. by your standards, obama is plenty qualified since he is a constitutional lawyer.

mdg10453
mdg10453

@ATLjackie He has NEVER said we are going to war w Iran, as I said I have a masters in poly sci, I'm plenty well informed, more than MSNBC.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 But do some research. Don't just make assumptions. I'm going off Romney's own words. I do pay attention.

ATLjackie
ATLjackie

@mdg10453 You can bend that info however you like, but do your own research. You don't have to rely on me.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Syria is turning into a proxy war between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. The farther we can keep our distance from Syria the better we serve the long term interests of both the US and Israel.