Analysis: US 'War of Words' on Iran

It’s not just what Romney and Obama are saying on Iran, but how they’re saying it.

US President Barack Obama 370 (R) (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370 (R)
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – Usually US presidential campaigns are all about drawing contrasts between the candidates, but the Obama team has taken the opposite tack when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, likely the preeminent foreign policy issue of the race.
The Obama campaign held a conference call this past week attacking Romney’s foreign policy credentials ahead of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s trip to Europe and the Middle East that began Thursday.
Their take-down of his Iran policy amounted to emphasizing the similarities between the two candidates.
“The American people, I think, expect him to outline a plan to pressure Iran – and to actually say exactly what he would do differently from what President Obama is already doing,” said Colin Kahl, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East through the end of last year.
“Because, frankly, all we’ve gotten from Romney up to this point is tough talk. All the actual substance that he’s put forward, whether it be on sanctions or on military preparedness, mirrors precisely what President Obama has already done to put pressure on Tehran,” Kahl said.
The notion that Romney’s Iran policy is essentially indistinguishable from Obama’s has become a popular trope, echoed in the pages of The New York Times and Washington think tank reports.
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And indeed, the broad contours of the policies are similar – ratchet up sanctions, increase diplomatic isolation and keep all the proverbial options on the table. But while the policy differences could be much sharper, to suggest they have the same approach overlooks a key ingredient in policy-making: It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.
Romney and Obama might have general prescriptions for Iran that are similar, but their programs could yield very different outcomes because of how they are communicated; the tone, context and perception of a leader can dramatically affect how policies play out – and ultimately how successful they are.
Take Obama’s foray into Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking. The bedrocks of his policy were the same as previous administrations’ – get the parties to direct talks and look to concessions from both sides to reach a two-state solution – but his tone was very different.
There has been perhaps no greater point of friction between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu than the president’s opposition to settlements, yet American objections to the practice stretch back decades. The central divergence in this case was how publicly and categorically those objections were made, and Israel’s sense that no comparable public demands were being made of the Palestinians.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Obama could have made more progress if he had expressed his position privately, as other administrations have. He noted that Obama’s “public tone” did not cultivate trust with the Israeli people and cost him capital that could have injected momentum into peace talks and willingness to make concessions.
“When you deal with leaders, you come from a point of leverage when you have the publics on your side,” Makovsky explained.
Without public support or buy-in from either side’s leadership, the result has been more than three years of stalemate.
On Iran, as it happens, there are some policy differences between Obama and Romney – or at least what Romney the candidate has pledged to do. A foreign policy paper the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign released last week stated that Romney wouldn’t exempt China from sanctions for purchasing oil from Iran as the Obama administration has done and that he would push for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for inciting genocide under the UN’s genocide convention.
An even more significant distinction could well be the “tough talk” that the Obama campaign dismisses.
“So much of what we’re trying to do vis-à-vis Iran is psychological,” according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been consulting with the Obama administration about how to effectively deploy sanctions against Iran.
The West’s intention, he explained, is to change Iran’s “risk-reward calculus” so that Tehran believes it has so much more to lose than gain from having a nuclear weapon – the destruction of its economy from ever-increasing sanctions or even more from a military strike – that it stops pursuing one.
The perception of Western determination or lack thereof also affects Israel’s calculation of whether it needs to take action on its own or whether it can rely on America to do everything at its disposal to stop Iran.
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“It’s not just about policy. It’s about tone, it’s about personality, it’s about the projection of power,” Dubowitz said.
“[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei does not fear Obama. Whether he should or not is a different story.”
The proof of that pudding, Dubowitz argued, has been demonstrated by Iran’s refusal to make any serious concessions in three rounds of talks with world powers over the past four months, let alone stop uranium enrichment as the US has demanded.
Romney could change that dynamic and with it how events unfold. He has been much more willing than Obama to speak of the possibility of using military force or overturning the regime.
“It’s worth working with the insurgents in the country to encourage regime change,” he said when asked about Iran at a January debate. “And if all else fails, if after all of the work we’ve done, there’s nothing else we could do besides take military action, then of course you take military action.”
Similarly, the first point of Romney’s Iran policy program is that within his initial 100 days in office, he would “make clear that the military option is on the table by ordering the regular presence of an aircraft carrier task force in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously.”
The paper next stresses, “He will also begin talks with Israel to increase military coordination and assistance and enhance intelligence sharing.”
These points are congruent with what Obama has said, but Romney shifts his primary emphasis to the military option, by the US or Israel or both, in a way that contrasts with the White House. And whatever Obama’s pronouncements on the use of force have been, they come in a context of his having emphasized diplomatic overtures and having publicly cautioned against an Israeli attack, not to mention upon a backdrop of strained relations with the Netanyahu government.
Dubowitz assessed that Romney’s strong stance could make concessions by Tehran more likely. He gave the example of Iran’s decision to release American captives on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration because it understood a new sheriff – with what appeared to be a quicker trigger finger – was in town.
On the other hand, the bellicose rhetoric could make Iran feel more desperate and inclined to use military force as a warning through its proxies or otherwise miscalculate US intentions in a way that triggers a war that neither side wants.
Of course, there is one other important factor to keep in mind about Romney’s current vocabulary.
“Romney’s audience is the voters now more than the mullahs in Iran,” Makovsky pointed out. “He will tailor his comments more to them.”
And those voters will decide which candidate’s words they prefer.