Romney draws line at ‘nuclear capable’ Iran

By The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said his administration wouldn’t tolerate a “nuclear capable” Iran, differentiating himself from President Barack Obama who set his red line at Tehran acquiring an atomic weapon.

The distinction was a rare airing of significant differences between the two candidates on foreign policy during their third and final debate Monday.

Both men said that military action to curb Iran’s nuclear work was a last resort and that the U.S. should instead focus on imposing “crippling” sanctions on the Islamic republic.

They also both played down the potential for the U.S. to get involved militarily in Syria to end President Bashar al-Assad’s military crackdown on his political opponents that have left at least 30,000 Syrians dead over the past 18 months, according to human-rights groups.

Still, the distinction between Messrs. Romney and Obama on their red lines for Iran’s nuclear advances could prove important in the coming year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month that the international community needed to be prepared for military action against Iran’s nuclear installations by next summer.

This is when he said Tehran is likely to have acquired enough nuclear material to quickly break out and attempt to develop an atomic weapon in weeks or months.

Some independent nuclear experts have said Tehran could produce enough weapons grade fuel to produce one nuclear weapon in as quickly as two months if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the political decision.

Mr. Romney’s description of his red line placed him closer to Mr. Netanyahu’s than the president. And the Republican candidate stressed during the debate that he would back Israeli militarily if it was attacked by Tehran.

“If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one,” Mr. Romney said. “Number two, with regards to—to Iran and the threat of Iran, there’s no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America.”

Mr. Obama also pledged to back Israel in the face of an Iranian attack, though he didn’t specifically cite U.S. military support. He also said Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, rather than a capability, was his ultimate red line.

“As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Obama said.

Iran proved to be the most substantive issued during the 90-minute exchange.

In recent weeks, Mr. Romney has specifically focused his attacks on the Obama administration’s response to a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month, which killed the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The Republican candidate has accused Mr. Obama of failing to provide adequate security for American officials in the North African country. And he’s also charged that the White House initially refused for political reasons to call the assault on the American compound a terrorist attack, a charge Mr. Obama has denied.

Mr. Romney, however, notably scaled back his focus on Libya during the debate. And instead both candidates were drawn out by moderator Bob Schieffer on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite Mr. Romney’s comments on his red line, the Republican challenger worked to play down Mr. Obama’s charges that a Republican administration would quickly rush to war. Instead, Mr. Romney focused on the need for diplomacy, but with an increase on already punishing sanctions on Iran.

“Of course, a military action is the last resort,” Mr. Romney said. “It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues had been…tried to their full extent.”

Mr. Obama took credit for organizing an international sanctions campaign that has shown increasing signs in recent weeks of rattling Iran’s economy. The value of the Iranian currency, the rial, has fallen by nearly 60% so far this year, and U.S. officials estimate that Tehran is losing $15 billion in oil revenues every quarter due to a coordinated U.S.-EU embargo.

“We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy,” Mr. Obama said.

Still, the president stressed that he wouldn’t allow diplomatic negotiations with Tehran to stretch on indefinitely. And he said that his administration would continue to consider military action to stop Iran from getting a bomb.

Mr. Obama also denied a New York Times report published this weekend that said the White House had forged a secret agreement with Iran to hold one-on-one negotiations over the nuclear issue following the Nov. 6 vote.

“Those were reports in the newspaper. They are not true,” he said.

Administration officials have said in recent days that they expect international negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program to resume in the months ahead. They stressed, however, that negotiations would take place under a diplomatic process led by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, along with Germany, rather than as an independent American initiative.

 

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