Iran took center stage Monday night at President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney's third and final presidential debate. But any Iranian leader watching the debate will have walked away happy. While Obama and Romney both spoke about augmenting pressure on Tehran, and their opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb, neither offered a prescription that will force the Iranian government to abandon its program. Nor did either candidate suggest that the threat posed by Iran was not simply nuclear weapons, but rather the regime that would wield them.
Obama's talking points were more about politics than policy. He was quick to claim credit where none is due. While his policy now centers on sanctions, the pressure Iran now faces came despite Obama's policy rather than because of it. Obama entered office determined to engage Iranian leaders diplomatically. "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," he declared less than a week after taking his oath of office. To claim credit for rallying the international coalition against Iran is to exaggerate: After all, during the Bush administration, the same coalition passed four unanimous or near unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions to demand Iran suspend enrichment and to target sanctions toward Tehran's nuclear program.
Rather than augment these sanctions, Obama initially weakened them. By promising to negotiate with Iran without preconditions, Obama unilaterally waived hard-fought Security Council demands that Iran first suspend uranium enrichment. Hence, Obama's debate statement that "Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place" was nothing short of political chutzpah.
Perhaps Obama learned on the job. It is true that sanctions now bite Iran, and it is good that Obama appreciates this. But then why did Obama oppose the imposition of the most effective sanctions? The United States instituted banking sanctions only after the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them over the objections of the administration.
While Obama denied a recent report that Washington and Tehran had agreed on direct talks, his subsequent suggestion about "potentially having bilateral discussions" should raise a big question mark over where the president's true instincts lay.
For his part, Romney was right to reiterate that the red line should be an Iranian nuclear capability rather than nuclear weapons themselves – after all, the difference between capability and weapons acquisition might only be the two weeks it takes to construct a weapon – he did not go far enough to enunciate how he would resolve the Iranian threat. True, Romney is right that the United States should have imposed crippling sanctions early and often, but sanctions alone will not defeat Iran. They must be part of a coherent and comprehensive strategy. Perhaps this is why Romney also suggested isolating Iranian diplomats. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's recent visit to the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, however, should have underlined the futility of trusting the international community to do the right thing.
While Romney's promise to pursue an indictment against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide is interesting, that too did not go far enough. In Iran, the president is about style, not substance. It is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots. It is he, and not Ahmadinejad, that Romney should target. Indeed, it was Khamenei who declared that "the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted" and that "the perpetual mission of Iran is the elimination of Israel." That Romney focused on Ahmadinejad and not Khamenei suggests confusion about the real stakeholders in the Iranian system.
While both candidates paid lip service to military action as a last resort, neither recognized that the Iranian nuclear challenge will not end with military action. Bombing Iranian facilities might delay the regime's nuclear ambitions but will not end them. Unless there is a policy in place to take advantage of that delay, attacking Iran simply kicks the can down the road at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. The United States should not bomb Iran every three years because the president is afraid to enunciate the simple fact that it is the Iranian regime, and not its arsenal, which is the true problem.
Indeed, such recognition was the missing piece in the candidates' discussion. Neither Obama nor Romney expressed a vision about what Iran could become if freed from the yoke of the ayatollahs' dictatorship. Romney came closest when he criticized Obama for ignoring the Iranian people in the 2009 post-election unrest, but he did not elaborate how he would recapture that lost moment.
It is possible: Just as Ronald Reagan supported striking shipyard workers in Poland, Iranian labor leaders yearn for Western support. While President Bush sought to empower Iranian civil society, Obama has taken democracy support programs in Iran down to almost zero. What would Romney do? He did not say. Once upon a time, candidates assumed Soviet permanence, but it turned out that "evil empire" was an empty shell. It is tragic that in a contest to determine the leader of the free world, and in a campaign in which both candidates have sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, neither saw fit to mention liberty. Iran's people deserve better.