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Romney on Iran is just like Obama

By Blake Hounshell, Special to CNN
updated 3:36 PM EDT, Tue July 31, 2012
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and candidate Mitt Romney speak before a meeting this week in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and candidate Mitt Romney speak before a meeting this week in Jerusalem.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blake Hounshell: Mitt Romney talks tough about Iran, nuclear weapons on his Israel trip
  • Hounshell: Adviser seemed to say a President Romney would OK Israel to attack on Iran
  • He says Romney backed away from remark, reiterated position that is much like Obama's
  • Writer: Likely both candidates will accept current standoff, with intransigent Iran

Editor's note: Blake Hounshell is the managing editor at Foreign Policy.

(CNN) -- If talking tough on Iran were an Olympic sport, Mitt Romney would win a gold medal after his trip to Israel this week.

"We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran's leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions," the presumptive Republican nominee told a staunchly conservative crowd in Jerusalem, vowing that "no option should be excluded" in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Romney's top Middle East adviser, Dan Senor -- formerly George W. Bush's spokesman in Iraq -- also turned a few heads when he appeared to say that a President Romney would give the green light for an Israeli attack on Iran.

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Noting that the United States should "do everything we can" to prevent the Islamic republic from getting a nuclear capability, Senor then went further.

"And if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision," he said.

That would represent a real departure from the last two American presidents' policy of seeking to dissuade Israel from taking matters into its own hands, a dangerous move that could set the Middle East ablaze.

Was the former Massachusetts governor signaling a new approach? Evidently not. Given an opportunity to repeat Senor's comments, Romney declined -- and his campaign also issued a clarification: "Gov. Romney believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. Gov. Romney recognizes Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it."

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If that sounds an awful lot like Barack Obama's position, it's because it is Obama's position. As he put it in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, "(U)ltimately, the Israeli prime minister and the defense minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel's security, and I don't presume to tell them what is best for them."

Romney argues that Iranian leaders don't take Obama's refrain that "all options are on the table" seriously, a situation he apparently believes would change if Americans elected a new president. Maybe so -- Iran did blanch at first in the face of military threat when the United States forcibly ousted Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and withdrew its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz when confronted by stern warnings from top U.S. defense officials.

But Obama's rhetoric has been, if more carefully calibrated, just as firm as Romney's. In that same interview with Goldberg, the president pointedly mentioned the military option, and said, "As president of the United States, I don't bluff."

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Washington reporters and policy wonks have been playing the "will they or won't they?" game on Iran for years. And until recently, the consensus was that Israel and the United States were, in fact, bluffing -- that to get other big powers to go along with tougher sanctions, they had to persuade them that they might indeed attack.

But now, that consensus seems to be shifting as Iran nears what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls the "zone of immunity" -- when Iran has enough enrichment capability buried safely beyond the reach of Israeli bombs that its program will be impossible for the Jewish state to stop on its own.

U.S. military leaders have hinted that the United States has a bit more time; American B-52s and massive bunker-busters can still do the job if it looks like Iran really is about to get the bomb. And given that the International Atomic Energy Agency, for all its doubts about Iran's intentions, has never conclusively determined that Iran wants the weapon, it may be years before we reach that point, if ever.

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Still, diplomacy and sanctions have yet to show that they can change the calculus of Iran's leaders. The Islamic republic has been isolated from the world economy for three decades. It suffered through a devastating war with Iraq in which it sent unarmed children barefoot across landmines. This is not a country that buckles easily under pressure.

And at this point, given how politicized this showdown has become, it's hard to imagine a deal that both sides can accept. Here, again, the differences between Romney and Obama don't really matter -- Romney has ruled out any enrichment whatsoever, while Obama will accept some -- because neither is good enough to pass muster in Tehran.

The last hope for peace may be a kind of tacit agreement: Iran does not cross any red lines, and we do not bomb. In other words, a lot like the tenuous arrangement we have now. But how long can it last?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Blake Hounshell.

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