On Iran, one voice

I don’t know who will win the presidential election in 2012, but I know whom I don’t want to win it: Iran.

Yet I have a sickening sense that come next November, after two years of a nasty, slimy mud-wrestling match, the Democratic and Republican candidates will be left bruised and panting on the floor and the mullahs will walk away with the prize. 

That prize is an American electorate riven and confused about the Iranian nuclear threat and what to do about it.

The leading Republican candidates have already made clear that Iran is the devil’s playground when it comes to Campaign 2012.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in a speech in Spartanburg, S.C., last week. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” 

Romney is accusing President Obama of refusing to consider a military option against Iran. That is certainly damning. Except it’s not true. 

“We are not taking any options off the table,” Obama said as recently as Nov. 14 in Hawaii (and on other occasions). “Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region, but also to the United States.”

Romney’s distortion of Obama’s record is not a mistake; it’s a plan. His advisor Daniel Senor acknowledged as much to the Huffington Post this week. 

From the Romney campaign’s perspective, I can see the temptation. It is hard to paint Obama as weak or indecisive on defense when the guy has more kill notches on his belt than Josey Wales. And Romney can’t well pick a fight over Chinese currency valuation because, well, who understands that? 

That leaves, in Romney’s mind, Iran. And if by painting Obama as ineffectual on Iran Romney can also pick off a few Jewish voters in Nevada and Florida, so much the better. 

But Senor, who co-wrote the terrific book “Start-Up Nation” with Saul Singer, should know better. In fact, his understanding of the Iranian situation as described in the interview with HuffPo is almost identical to what Obama has been saying. “Iran is a unique kind of threat. … It directly and unambiguously threatens core American interests: the security of the American homeland, the security of our access to vital resources in the Gulf and the security of America’s close ally, Israel.”

I’m not arguing that Obama’s Iran policy has been flawless. He fumbled badly by not doing more to support the June uprisings by the Iranian people who sought to topple the current regime. If Romney can convince me that he would have had the wisdom and experience to be more effective under those same circumstances, I’m all ears.

But I do think Obama deserves credit for focusing more of our attention on Iran, and more productively, than his predecessor.

Lost in all this partisan chatter are three facts: Iran’s nuclear program leapt forward while the Bush administration was otherwise engaged in Iraq. Under the Bush administration, the National Security Estimate downgraded the potential threat of Iran’s nuclear program. And it was the Bush administration that refused Israel’s request in 2008 for stronger bunker-busting bombs and for permission to fly over Iraq on a mission to destroy the Natanz reactor. 

Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program has been more forceful and more focused.

“When I came into office, the world was divided, and Iran was unified around its nuclear program,” Obama said in a speech earlier this month. “We now have a situation where the world is united and Iran is isolated. And because of our diplomacy and our efforts, we have, by far, the strongest sanctions on Iran that we’ve ever seen.” 

This week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to buttress Obama’s contention in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. After reiterating the dangers a nuclear Iran poses to Israel and the region, Barak offered his assessment of Obama. 

“He is extremely strong supporter of Israel in regard to its security,” Barak said. “Traditionally, the president will support Israel in keeping its collective military edge and taking care of its security needs. But this administration is excelling in this. And it could not have happened without the immediate direct support of the president. So I don’t think that anyone can raise any question mark about the devotion of this president to the security of Israel.”

Even in an election year, there are times we need to present a united front against clear dangers.

On Sept. 24, 2008, as the tanking economy presented a national threat, then-candidate Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, issued a joint statement backing the Bush administration’s initial recovery plan.

“Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people,” they said. “This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. ”

If Romney and Obama really believe a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe, they can prove it by speaking in a united voice.

Imagine — instead of finger pointing for political points — the power of a unified statement from Romney and Obama on Iran’s nuclear program. That would marginalize the isolationist Ron Paul wing on the right and the knee-jerk Israel-is-behind-it-all wing on the left. It would send a signal to world leaders that no matter who wins in November, the sanctions against Iran will endure. And it will let the mullahs know that no matter who wins in November, they lose.