WASHINGTON – When Mitt Romney talks about taking aggressive action to thwart
Iran’s nuclear program, there is something beyond hidden nuclear facilities and
UN Security Council resolutions that could pose a challenge to his freedom of
action: the presidential calendar.
The Republican candidate’s stated
policies on Iran align more closely with Israel’s than US President Barack
Obama’s do. Romney, unlike Obama, has set nuclear “capability” as his red line
on Iran’s nuclear program – just as Jerusalem has. And Romney – like Israeli
officials – has expressed concern about the Obama administration sending Iran
“mixed messages” about the threat of force when top US figures publicly air
their doubts about the utility of an attack.
But even if Romney is more
willing to echo the Israeli position and say he would take military action to
defend it, that doesn’t mean he would be able to do so by the deadline Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set
at the UN in September. Netanyahu spoke then of
Iran reaching the threshold of the final stage of uranium enrichment needed for
a bomb “by next spring, at most by next summer,” and declared that Tehran must
be stopped before going further than that.
In the end, perhaps neither
Obama nor Romney would decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear
program; Obama has repeatedly made clear his misgivings about that course.
Still, some (though not all) in Israeli officialdom see Obama as better
positioned to lead a strike before Netanyahu’s clock runs out. As an incumbent
president long involved with Iran, he wouldn’t face the structural impediments
that, these voices privately assess, make it very unlikely Romney would launch
an attack so quickly.
Romney would have to both assemble a national
security team and demonstrate to the American public, during his first few
months in office, that he has exhausted every other option for ending the
Iranian nuclear program.
“It takes many, many months for the senior
leadership to be put in place, and usually it’s not until summer that they are
really fully in place,” according to Rob Danin, who experienced several periods
of transition while working at the State Department and National Security
Council under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “That’s a
practical problem that the new team will encounter – they will still be finding
Though Danin noted that Obama would also have to deal with
staff turnover, it would be a “much, much shorter” process as an incumbent,
particularly if the US Senate, responsible for confirming the president’s major
appointments, stays Democratic.
Additionally, Danin questioned whether
Romney would want to start out his relationship with the international community
and the American public by launching another US action in the Middle
“It’s very difficult for the president to take proactive military
action in the first few months of his administration unless events force
something on him,” said Dan Schnur, an expert on the presidency at the
University of Southern California and former aide to Republican Sen. John
McCain. He pointed out that the use of force by new presidents in the modern era
generally occurred in cases where they had inherited an ongoing
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert with the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy, predicted that both politicians would need to give diplomacy one
more shot before either would resort to military action – Romney because he
could not win over the American people for such an attack without himself having
made an effort at diplomacy, and Obama because he himself was not yet convinced
that an attack was the only remaining option.
Even if both men need to
resume the diplomatic process, Obama could do so on a much more accelerated
schedule than Romney – a significant distinction with the clock running
Khalaji noted that the Iranians suspended negotiations in
mid-summer until after the US election because they felt that political
considerations would keep Obama from making a deal – or attacking – during that
“If Obama gets reelected, the chance of resuming negotiations in
November is very, very high. But if Romney gets elected, they would wait for
January 20, until Romney comes to office,” he calculated.
Not that it’s a
given that Obama would be willing to attack even if he feels the diplomatic
process has been exhausted. He has already indicated that he is opposed to
Israel striking on its own, something Jerusalem assesses Romney would be much
more supportive of.
The preferred Israeli course if diplomacy and
sanctions fail would be to have the US take military action, since it would have
greater capabilities and international support.
Yet Israel could feel
compelled to take matters into its own hands. Netanyahu implied at the UN that
that time would come in late spring or summer of 2013.
Of course, that
time-frame has been pushed back many times before – including during the UN
speech itself. Until Netanyahu’s September address, there was speculation that
Israel might attack toward the end of 2012, since Defense Minister Ehud Barak
had previously hinted the deadline for action would come this fall. On Tuesday,
Barak explained why the autumn deadline had been delayed, and his comments were
a reminder that the time-frame is not set in stone.
If the timeline does
change – if Iran, or another cyber attack, slows uranium enrichment, for example
– the practical constraints that could hinder Romney in his first few months in
office would be removed. Then he would have more room to walk the walk as well
as talk the talk.