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Media Watch | The Iran Plank: Previewing Monday Night's Foreign Policy Debate


23 Oct 2012 03:09Comments

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TheChoice2012.jpg[ in focus ] With the flurry of official denials regarding this weekend's New York Times report on the prospect of direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iran after the U.S. presidential election and a new Wall Street Journal report that the CIA was providing the White House with inaccurate reports on Libya during the days that followed the September 11 attacks on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, the Middle East is likely to dominate Monday night's foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

On the subject of Iran, there is likely to be a great deal of contention over the president's record. Though the administration has imposed a series of severe sanctions -- unilateral and multilateral -- on top of those enacted under its predecessors, many hawks complain this is not enough, and that by refusing to accept Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's version of a "red line," the president is emboldening the Iranians. During the vice presidential debate, Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, said the administration was weakening the sanctions. Vice President Joe Biden countered that congressional Republicans like Ryan were demanding measures to which the White House could not get the European Union or its East Asian allies to agree. This argument has been echoed in the foreign affairs pages of Iran's conservative Khorasan daily, one of whose correspondents recently suggested that a Romney presidency might not be "so bad" for Iranians because of all that would be on his plate elsewhere, the difference between campaign appeals and actual policy, and, most significantly, the possibility in the correspondent's view that Republicans would overshoot on new sanctions and undermine the present regimen.

While it might not be cited in any detail, it is likely that the sanctions debate is only going to ratchet up in light of a recent Congressional Research Service finding that the sanctions have yet to fulfill U.S. policy objectives. While it is apparent that they have not yet had their desired effect -- several of the most draconian ones were implemented only a few months ago -- the report is being seized upon by hawks in Congress that the sanctions are proving ineffective:

Department of Defense and other assessments indicate that sanctions have not stopped Iran from building up its conventional military and missile capabilities, in large part with indigenous skills. However, sanctions may be slowing Iran's nuclear program somewhat by preventing Iran from obtaining some needed technology from foreign sources. Iran is also judged not complying with U.N. requirements that it halt any weapons shipments outside its borders, particularly with regard to purported Iranian weapons shipments to help the embattled Asad government in Syria.

Despite the imposition of what many now consider to be "crippling" sanctions, some in Congress believe that economic pressure on Iran needs to increase further and faster.... The 112th Congress might try to increase sanctions further in late 2012, possibly as an amendment to a FY2013 national defense authorization act.

Only one senator, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, has vociferously argued against the sanctions regimen, calling it a prelude for a regime change policy -- like the one promulgated by the Clinton administration against Iraq in the 1990s -- and war. For a number of Iranians interviewed this past week by a Tehran Bureau correspondent, there is little difference between the two presidential candidates' willingness to further isolate Iran; they say that the Obama administration's sanctions regimen has been much harder to deal with than previous ones, but that a Romney presidency may be more likely to go to war.

Though the Congressional Research Service report's summary assesses that "many judge that Iran might soon decide it needs a nuclear compromise to produce an easing of sanctions because," headlines in the American press honed in on the opening sentence of the 70-page report: "The principal objective of international sanctions -- to compel Iran to verifiably confine its nuclear program to purely peaceful uses -- has not been achieved to date."

While "many" may judge the sanctions to be effective -- even Israeli leaders have praised the ObamaaAdministration here -- many of the individuals and think tanks associated with the Bush administration's more hawkish Iran policies are serving as advisers to the Romney campaign, and have long urged not just an expansion of sanctions, but "regime change" stepping stones, like the ones implemented against Iraq. Exemplifying the difference of opinion in the United States, realist scholar Stephen Walt and neoconservative doyen Richard Perle sparred over the topic on NPR Sunday, with Perle suggesting the Obama administration's diplomatic approach was, along with the sanctions, proving ineffective.

Perhaps even Iran's alleged ties to al-Qaeda -- a highly disputed subject, but one the Treasury Department takes quite seriously -- will come up in the debate. If they do, viewers may recall that such alleged ties were trumpeted in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (ironically, the indisputable presence of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization -- recently delisted as a foreign terrorist group by the State Department -- in Iraq during this period was counted against Saddam Hussein).

While Romney counts a few "realists" among his team, he has also altered his "red lines" when pressed by campaign supporters, so that now his stance is closer to the prevailing one in Congress: that Iran cannot obtain a "nuclear weapons capability"; though, as former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman noted on NPR Sunday, like many nations with a similar known level of nuclear infrastructure, the Islamic Republic already has a theoretical level of "weapons capability" and thus such an assessment could be used to rationalize a preventive strike by the United States and/or Israel.

Notably absent from the presidential campaign has been a discussion of democracy promotion in the Middle East. Though Romney shares advisers with the former President Bush, he has expended little effort in building on the last Republican president's rhetorical focus on democratization in the region (the Bush administration itself retreated from such talk after 2006). However, he has frequently criticized Obama for not openly supporting Iran's Green Movement in the aftermath of Iran's 2009 presidential election, when massive street protests followed the announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had retained office, amid widespread suspicions of a rigged vote. Earlier this year, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer suggested that the administration should have stepped in with "weaponry" and "clandestine operations."

Obama did forcefully condemn the Iranian authorities' violent suppression of the protests, while he declared, "This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose. The Iranian people can speak for themselves." While some pro-democracy demonstrators chanted "Obama, Obama -- either with us, or with them!" many in the Green Movement, including its most prominent figure, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had run against Ahmadinejad, argued that the legitimacy of the opposition rested on Iranians seeing it as truly homegrown and independent of foreign influence.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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