The foreign policy debate between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama excluded certain important issues that were not among those questions selected by moderator Bob Shieffer. The three Asian issues given the most attention were Iran, China, and Afghan-Pakistan. And even on these issues the debate deepened uncertainty regarding the presidential candidates’ policies. This is only natural given the format, which requires the candidates to describe complex policies and issues in a few seconds and in an effort to sound forceful, reasoned, moderate, and decisive, with clever sound bites and with little opportunity to correct mistaken utterances. So as a service to readers let me try to clarify the differences between the public stances of the two candidates, as well as highlight other Asian issues that will likely preoccupy the next administration.
With respect to Iran, Obama insisted that, “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” noting how Iran could then threaten Israel, “provide nuclear technology” to terrorists, or catalyze “a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.” Tehran must choose, Obama insisted, between a diplomatic settlement that would “end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.”
Still, Iranian leaders have an “opportunity to re-enter the community of nations” but only if they” abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” through “inspections that are very intrusive,” and “over time, what they can do is regain credibility.”
The mentioning of the inspections issue is interesting since it implies that Iran could be allowed to continue enriching uranium as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could confirm that Iran was not diverting the enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons. But to work any such deal would have to see Iran also adopt at least the IAEA Additional Protocol so that the agency could inspect any sites where it suspected nuclear activities may be occurring, instead of only the sites that the Iranian government declares to the IAEA as part of its standard safeguards program.
Romney sought to repudiate Obama’s assertion that “during the course of this campaign he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action.” The governor said that “our mission is.. to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” He concurred that “a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America” but emphasized that Tehran was “four years closer to a nuclear weapon,” which is chronologically true, as Obama acknowledged when he insisted that the “clock is ticking.” Romney insisted that “military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.”