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Did Romney Offer an Alternative on Iran?

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention today rehearsed some of the themes he has been trying to promote throughout the campaign. Romney got a standing ovation when he mentioned President Obama’s habit of giving apologies for America “that were not due” and also scored points on the topic of White House leaks of classified information and the administration’s “shabby” treatment of Israel. But in his survey of the country’s standing abroad, his strongest point was his highlighting of the president’s failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Though President Obama continues to promise that Iran will not go nuclear on his watch, this is the one foreign policy front on which Romney’s attempt to pose the “are you better off than you were four years ago” question gives him a clear advantage. While the Republican candidate’s critique of the president’s announcement of a withdrawal date for all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is well-taken — and prompted an angry pushback from the president in his VFW speech yesterday — Obama is probably right to count on a war weary public to give him a pass on the advantage he has handed the Taliban. But the Iranian nuclear threat, which Obama has met with feckless “engagement,” futile diplomacy and belated and half-heartedly enforced sanctions, is an issue on which his position is difficult to defend. The question is, did Romney offer a coherent alternative policy? The answer is a qualified yes.

Romney was eloquent in outlining the danger from Iran and in noting that Obama’s policies have only brought the nation four years closer to nuclear peril. But he was short on details. He did say that in his administration sanctions on Iran “would be enforced without exceptions.” Though he did not explicitly say so, this is an allusion to the exemptions Obama gave to China and India to go on importing Iranian oil. The Treasury Department has also granted thousands of exemptions to companies wishing to continue doing business with Iran.

In speaking of not allowing Iran any right to refine uranium, Romney also drew a clear distinction between his view and the negotiating position of the P5+1 group that the president has entrusted to negotiate with Iran. The P5+1 alliance led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has made it clear to the Iranians that if they will only agree to some sort of deal, their right to go on refining uranium will probably be protected. If Romney is telling us that his administration takes the position that he will not acquiesce to any kind of Iranian nuclear program, he is articulating a clear difference with Obama. That makes good sense because, as past nuclear talks with both North Korea and Iran proved, leaving Tehran any nuclear facilities ensures they will cheat on any deal and ultimately get their weapon.

Romney also probably knows that at this late date in the game, even the most rigidly enforced sanctions are not likely to make enough of a difference. As Romney told the VFW, the ayatollahs are not going to be talked out of their nuclear ambitions. His veiled reference to the use of force in which he said he “will use every means” to protect U.S. security illustrates a greater understanding that this issue is not going to be resolved with more engagement.

Though his Iran policy is still a loose outline rather than a coherent plan, Romney was still able to show where he differs from the president. On this point as well as on others (such as the president’s attitude toward Israel that will be highlighted by Romney’s upcoming trip to the Jewish state), the GOP challenger made a good start to showing why foreign policy can be a strength rather than a weakness for his campaign.