Did Romney Shift on Iran Red Lines?

Josh Rogin reports that Mitt Romney clarified his red line on Iran as “nuclear capability” during a conference call with American rabbis last night:

“With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Romney said. “So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world.”

Saying that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon (which is Obama’s position) and saying that Iran cannot achieve the capability to build a nuclear weapon are obviously very important distinctions. A nuclear-capable Iran would have the ability to assemble a bomb within a very short window, which is why many conservatives draw the line at capability.

Some are calling this a shift in Romney’s position, noting that he told George Stephanopoulos last week that “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.” When asked whether that meant his red line was the same as Obama’s, Romney said yes.

But take another look at Romney’s full quote to Stephanopoulos:

Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.  It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world.  Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East.  But it could be brought here.  Hezbollah, which has presence in Latin America can be bring fissile material and threaten the United States by perhaps bringing it into the United States and suggesting they’d detonate it if we didn’t do certain things.  Look, Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.

Romney does state that a nuclear weapon is his red line in the first sentence. But then he elaborates a bit, saying they should not have the “capacity” to terrorize the world, and warning that “fissile material” — a precursor to a bomb — could fall into the hands of terrorists. Almost immediately after the interview, Romney’s campaign clarified that he was talking about capacity. “As he said this morning, Governor Romney’s red line is Iran having a nuclear weapons capacity,” his spokesperson Andrea Saul told the New York Times.

Romney also indicated that capability was his red line during his visit to Israel in July. He said that “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability presents an intolerable threat to Israel, to America, and to the world,” adding that “the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability. Preventing that outcome must be our highest national security priority.”

Based on all of that, his comment on the conference call last night doesn’t appear to be a deviation from his position. He can be criticized for being less than clear during his interview with Stephanopoulos (and there are lingering questions about why he agreed that his red lines are the same as Obama’s), but the position he gave on the conference call isn’t any different from the one his campaign explicitly stated last week.