Every president for the past two decades has acknowledged the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambition. During the next administration, this once-theoretical capability will become real. “When the Iranian nation reaches the peak,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared on June 3, “all enmities and evils will cease.” Just last month, he threatened that “the fake Zionist regime will soon disappear.”
Barack Obama made outreach to Iran the cornerstone of his policy toward that country. In his first interview as president, he declared, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” In effect, though, this desperate diplomacy transformed Obama into Tehran’s useful idiot. By offering to negotiate without preconditions, Obama unilaterally waived five previous Security Council resolutions that required Iran to cease uranium enrichment unconditionally. Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, bragged about how the regime had often embraced dialogue not to resolve conflict but to buy time.
Seeking to avoid antagonizing the regime, Obama turned his back on protesters who rose up against it in 2009. His conciliation won him no favors. On November 4, 2009, the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure, Khamenei ridiculed Obama and his outreach. “This new president of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree!” Khamenei then told assembled students that any agreement with America was off the table.
Obama can talk tough. “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he declared at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. But rhetoric is not enough: Credibility matters. By voiding past redlines and quibbling over new ones, Obama has signaled his rhetoric’s emptiness. Obama’s dispute with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu boils down to how far the United States will allow Iran’s nuclear program to progress. After all, the difference between the nuclear-weapons capability to which Obama would acquiesce and the nuclear-weapons possession he treats as his redline might be only one week, leaving the U.S. without time to act once Tehran makes a decision to weaponize.
If Washington is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability, determination matters. The contrast between Obama’s fecklessness and Mitt Romney’s resolve is sharp. Romney has described stopping an Iranian bomb as “a solemn duty and a moral imperative”: “Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way.”
For his part, Obama has consistently resisted meaningful sanctions. It took a 100–0 Senate vote, after almost three years of Obama’s failed outreach, before Obama consented to impose them on Iran’s banks and its oil trade. The sanctions may hurt, but there are loopholes. By issuing waivers to Iran’s top 20 trading partners and welcoming anti-sanctions activists into the White House, Obama has signaled a lack of resolve. Romney will plug the holes, but the time Obama squandered is lost forever.
Romney is right that a strategy of robust sanctions is no longer enough. In a July interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Romney outlined other ideas, including “indicting [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide, standing for voices of dissent within Iran, and developing reliable military options” as a last resort.