Romney vs Iran: A Second Look

Jon Ward’s review of Mitt Romney’s Iran policy made me revisit the candidate’s November 10 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Romney’s campaign is convinced Obama’s Iran policy is inadequate and that voters agree. His solution is a credible military threat, which according to some, President Obama has already shelved. The candidate’s rhetoric far surpasses comments made by his GOP rivals or Obama–even though all agree an Iranian bomb is unacceptable. The end of Romney’s editorial is worth quoting at length:

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Every line of this paragraph–except the first one about “peace”–is worth a second-look:

Romney threatens “far tougher” sanctions. Very soon there will be only one screw left to turn: the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which handles transactions for Iranian oil exports. If the bank was sanctioned, it would make selling Iranian oil infinitely more difficult, perhaps even impossible. Even a partial disruption of Iran’s 2.2. million barrels of daily oil exports could negatively impact the global economy. Remember we’ve already seen America’s strategic petroleum reserve tapped this year and Saudi Arabia release extra crude in concert with Gulf Arab producers in spite of OPEC; taking millions of barrels off the market may not be worth it given the slim margin of spare production capacity left over. Romney must concede this possibility and warn Americans that new sanctions could boomerang. Congress should too, since senators and representatives are eager to sanction the Central Bank, but refuse to admit it could hurt the American economy. (Last week at Brookings, President Obama’s National Security Advisor also hinted that “additional steps” may eventually be taken against Iran’s Central Bank.)

Romney claims he will sanction Iran unilaterally if necessary. Without China and Russia, it’s hard to imagine sanctions ever reaching a tipping point. The US alone simply cannot exact the kind of pain required. China became Iran’s top trading partner early last year. Even then, it’s questionable whether or not sanctions can do the job even if they are complimented by Moscow and Beijing.  Iran could still surprise the world and endure. It’s worth recalling Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s comments made in the mid-1960’s, when he promised Pakistan would “eat grass” in exchange for a nuclear deterrent, while his country sought an atomic bomb in spite of international isolation. At the very least, the US needs the European Union to act because of its financial clout.

Romney will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. Which ones? Is he talking about the Green Movement? Or is he talking about the Mujahideen el Khalq (MeK)? Other Republicans have flirted publicly with supporting the MeK even though the US State Department considers it a terrorist organization. In a recent debate Romney pledged to aid “insurgents” in Iran. He should note that the Green Movement is not an insurgent outfit–but rather a reformist movement looking to non-violently overhaul an increasingly authoritarian system. Obama should have taken a harder line in 2009 when the crackdown began, sure, but Romney needs to clarify his stance as well. So should other candidates.

Romney goes on to suggest he will increase America’s military profile in the Persian Gulf. The problem here is obvious: the United States will maintain a massive presence in the Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future whether Romney becomes president or not. Defense Secretary Panetta confirmed as much recently when he told the Senate Armed Services committee that 40,000 Americans will remain stationed in the Gulf after the Iraq war. In the op-ed, Romney argues that the Persian Gulf needs an aircraft carrier group patrolling the small waterway. But the Gulf already has a carrier strike group deployed on rotation (lately the USS John C. Stennis). And so Romney’s pledge to expand patrols in the Gulf makes little sense. American forces can already attack Iran on short notice and respond to any provocation with overwhelming force. I applaud Romney for highlighting the utility and necessity of naval force in the future–as America shifts eastward to the Pacific–but the Persian Gulf doesn’t need more American muscle. It has plenty and will for years.

Romney will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with other allies in the Middle East. Again Romney’s op-ed gives the impression that Obama is asleep at the wheel. But this just isn’t so. In keeping with agreements made between Bush and Olmert, assistance to Israel favors security aid more than ever; the Obama administration and US congress also made sure “special additions” were added to promised aid in 2009. Last year, Congress okayed Obama’s request to provide Israel with another $205 million for anti-missile research. The administration gave Israel bunker-buster bombs this year. And early next year, under Obama’s watch, the US and Israel will conduct their largest joint military drills ever.  Beyond this, the administration defended Israel repeatedly in international forums as the Palestinians sought shortcuts to statehood in 2011. Romney can certainly enhance Israeli-American relations with a warmer personal touch. But Obama has not jeopardized Israeli security by any objective measure and Romney would find it hard to do much more than deliver a speech in Tel Aviv, which Obama would be wise to do before his first debate appearance.

Increasing coordination with Arab allies will also be tricky: many, especially Saudi Arabia, have already placed their multi-billion-dollar orders for military tech that’s inter-operable with American hardware, thus allowing the coordination of radar and perhaps even joint operations in the future. Can they afford to buy more?  Romney seems to think so–although “coordination” is a vague word. Certainly the willingness is there for Gulf Arab sheikhdoms. But these countries are also facing economic  and unemployment crises, as well as spill-over effects from democratization and political discontent affecting their neighbors. Iran may be a timeless enemy for some. But domestic concerns are a higher priority since regimes are threatened first and foremost at home if they fail to provide for their citizens. It’s worth noting also that the Israelis are historically apprehensive about American-sponsored arms build-ups in the Arab world since they wish to preserve their military advantage.

Finally, Romney believes Tehran will receive and act on the “unequivocal signal” sent by a military build-up, new sanctions, and aid to “insurgents.” But what if they don’t get the message and do as expected? What if Iranian leaders instead look at American posturing and presume that their only guarantee for security is a nuclear bomb? Romney’s prescription could very well accelerate Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The problem then becomes one of probability: how long can the US wait until it’s “too late”? Naturally, this course of action would increase the chances of miscalculation and confrontation. That confrontation, however, may not be decisive. Washington could attack, with all its high-tech advantages and amazing bunker-busting capabilities–and still come up short, leaving the Iranian nuclear program limping but still moving forward. Should Iran go nuclear after intervention, then there is no question that Iran would be even more hostile to American interests. And–at the same time–Tehran would feel more immune to American threats because it possesses the ultimate weapon.

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