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Iran Looms Over Candidates' Foreign Policy Debate


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The Middle East presents a series of challenges for whomever wins on November 6th: immediate problems in Libya and Syria, a seemingly eternal problem with Israel and the Palestinians, but maybe the biggest problem: the looming crisis with Iran.

We don't want to slight the euro crisis, Russia, or the strategic challenge of China, but there's a chance of war with Iran next year as both presidential candidates insist the United States will not accept an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

So in advance of tonight's third and final presidential debate, we've asked two veteran diplomats to bring us up to date and give us some idea on what to listen for tonight. And we've split our phone lines for this conversation. So if you're leaning Republican, what will you be listening for when the subject turns to Iran and the Middle East? The number is 800-344-3864, again that's 800-344-3864. If you're leaning Democratic, same question, that phone number is 800-344-3893, again 800-344-3893. We'll repeat those numbers for you in a little bit.

Everyone, of course, can email talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation through our website, go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Senator George McGovern and the lives of former presidential candidates on The Opinion Page this week.

But first Iran and what to expect at tonight's debate. Dennis Ross is counselor and distinguished scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as a diplomat an advisor on the Middle East for a number of administrations, most recently as President Obama's point man on Iran, and joins us now from studios at Georgetown University. Ambassador Ross, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

DENNIS ROSS: Always nice to be with you, thank you.

CONAN: And this weekend, the New York Times reported that Iran and the United States agreed in principle to hold one-on-one negotiations after Election Day, and I guess we have to begin by pointing out that both Washington and Tehran have denied that. So where do we stand on this possibility of negotiations?

ROSS: Look, my own sense is that we're going to see negotiations at some point, and I'm not convinced by the way the story that we saw in the New York Times really reflects any understanding, but I do think there's a built-in reality that you're going to see some more significant diplomatic effort made after the election regardless of who becomes the next president.

With - if it's President Obama, it's almost a certainty that it take place much more quickly, not because there is an agreement already but because having stated that prevention is the objective, if you stay on the path we're on, that leads you inevitably to the use of force, and it's inconceivable that we will use force before we have taken at least a more significant diplomatic step to see if there's a way out with the Iranians.

And by the way, I think that's true whether it's President Obama or if it becomes President Romney. I think that's true, as well, because no one is going to go to war with Iran over the nuclear issue without having taken a diplomatic step where we're able to demonstrate unmistakably we went the extra mile, we tested them over the possibility whether they could have civil nuclear power, which is what they say they want, but restricted in a way that prevents it from being capable of being turned into a nuclear weapon.

And I believe President Obama can pursue that much more quickly because obviously he's lived with this issue for four years, but I also think that Governor Romney, if he gets elected, he will have gotten elected because of the economy. It's hard to see how he's going to want to rush into a conflict with Iran. His objective also will be prevention, and he'll want to see if he can succeed through diplomatic means.

In any case, I think the American public will want to see that we have done what we could to avoid the use of force, and if we're left with that as the option, it's because there was no other.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller is also with us. He served as State Department advisor on the Middle East under six secretaries of state. Now he's vice president at the Wilson Center, and he's joining us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure, Neal. Always happy to be here.

CONAN: And as you just heard that outline from Dennis Ross, surely negotiations in the offing no matter who gets elected president on November 6th.

MILLER: I mean, I think that's right, and, you know, campaigning is about poetry, governing is about prose. So the reality is given the risk-to-reward ratio, which is heavily skewed to the risk option when it comes to using military force against Iran successfully and effectively, it seems to me that no matter who is president, once the - if it's Romney, once the joint chiefs and the CIA brief him about the risk-to-reward ratio, once his political advisors begin to focus him on the impact of military strikes on increasing oil prices and plunging financial markets at a time when in fact we have a fledgling economic recovery and facing the so-called fiscal cliff, it seems to me he's going to want to be very sober, and he'll want to turn over every conceivable stone before he chooses to use a military option.

CONAN: And there will be then questions about the distinctions between the candidates on Iran, and one of the distinctions we've heard is that Mr. Romney, in a clarification, says he would deny Iran the capability of developing nuclear weapons, while President Obama has said he would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Is that an important distinction?

MILLER: It's an important distinction, but we may, by the time either man decides - confronts a (unintelligible) decision, may have passed the capacity argument. The Israelis make this claim, and it's understandable given the fact that they're living out in the neighborhood and exposed.

But I think prevention is very much the issue here, but prevention of what? I mean, I would argue in the end there's only one country that can stop Iran from acquiring either the capacity to produce the weapon or the weapon itself, and that's Iran, should the mullahcracy conclude that the costs of acquisition of a weapon.

We haven't had much luck with Pakistan, with North Korea, with India. Of course the Israelis developed their weapons early. So I suspect here it's a question of whether or not you can apply sanctions, create a real opening for negotiations if the Iranians and the Americans are serious to try to prevent war. I think there's a reasonable chance that 2013 will in fact be a year of diplomacy. Whether or not it'll be effective is another matter.

CONAN: And Dennis Ross, we keep hearing reports about the ever-ratcheting sanctions, most recently the European Union, on natural gas imports. But is there evidence yet that they are hurting Iran enough to have a change - a policy on such a key issue?

ROSS: Well, there's no question that they're being hurt right now. We see it in terms of the increasing level of inflation, we see it in terms of devaluation of their currency, which seems to be on an accelerating path, we see it in terms of their inability to sell their oil.

We now see it in terms of real reductions in terms of their overall oil output, which will have a long-term effect on their revenue sources. We see it in terms of demonstrations in the bazaar, and if you go back to 1979, that's where they began. So there's no question that they are feeling it.

Now the question is whether that's sufficient to get them to change their behavior on the nuclear issue. The supreme leader a little over a week ago described the sanctions for the first time as being brutal. In the past, he always referred to something that would make Iran stronger. He was still quite defiant in terms of not giving in, but when you begin to talk about sanctions as being brutal, it also suggests that there is a reality that they're clearly facing.

Now I think in my mind it's always been a combination of two things to get the Iranians to decide that they want to shift course. One is that the economic price, as they measure it, is very high. And two is that if diplomacy fails, force actually will be used. The combination of the two I think will give them an incentive to look for a way out, and if you look historically at their behavior, at least the behavior of the Islamic Republic, we've seen that when the price is high enough, as they measure it, they do have a way of shifting course.

Khomeini did it in terms of ending the war with Iraq. We saw it in terms of suspension of enrichment in 2003. So I do think there's a potential to affect them. I don't think it was ever going to be likely prior to the election because I think they wanted to see what was going to happen here.

I do think the year of 2013 is going to be decisive. Aaron said it'll be decisive in terms of diplomacy, or it'll be the year of diplomacy. My suspicion is it's going to be decisive one way or the other. Either diplomacy will produce an outcome, or we'll see if it fails that force becomes much more likely to be used.

CONAN: We're talking with Dennis Ross, who you just heard, the Obama administration's former point man on Iran. Also with us, Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center. We want to hear from Republicans and Democrats, what you hope to hear or expect to hear tonight, what you'll be listening for as the candidates discuss Iran and the Middle East.

Republicans, 800-344-3864, Democrats 800-344-3893. We'll start on the Republican line, and this is Barnett(ph), Barnett with us from Des Moines.

BARNETT: Yeah, thank you very much for taking my question. I want to hear from the two candidates an actual assurance, a guaranteed assurance, that it can (unintelligible) Israel in case Iran does not abide by the sanctions or in case the sanction does not work. What would both candidates do to assure Israel that Israel is not going to be erased by this particular country, Iran. I will take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. And Dennis Ross, you may have some special insight on that.

ROSS: Well, I would say, you know, from an Israeli standpoint, because there's been a debate in Israel over the question of timing of acting militarily if diplomacy fails, there hasn't been a debate over whether or not Israel should accept an outcome where containment would be accepted.

Clearly Israelis across the board feel that if Iran has this weapon, it creates a shield behind which they'll engage in coercion. It makes their proxies, Hezbollah and others, much more aggressive. It creates an environment in which the Israelis see themselves at an increasingly high risk. And so I think what they're going to want to hear from the United States is that if diplomacy fails, we'll act to set the Iranian nuclear program back.

Aaron made a point a little earlier that nobody's going to - I'm going to paraphrase because what he was really saying is nobody can destroy the Iranian nuclear capability to build this - a nuclear capacity simply because they have the know-how and the engineering means.

But what can be done is you can set them back for a long time, and if you use force in a context where you've demonstrated that the Iranians brought this on themselves because they would not take diplomacy as an out, and they would not accept an outcome where they could have civil nuclear power and not convert it, then I think you can set them back because you'll be able to maintain sanctions and keep them isolated and make it very difficult for them to move forward.

So I think what the Israelis want to hear, in answer to the question, is: Will the United States, at the end of the day if diplomacy fails, if there isn't a diplomatic way to resolve this with the Iranians, will the United States act militarily? I think that's what the Israelis want to hear more than anything else.

CONAN: And have they heard that?

ROSS: Well, I think they have heard - I think they've heard something close to that. I think when - you raised the issue before about prevention and the definition of prevention. This distinction between capability and weapon in some ways gets at the question of, well, what do you mean by prevention.

When the prime minister of Israel talks about a red line and he defines the red line as being the Iranians accumulating one bomb's worth of medium-enriched uranium because they can squirrel it away, and after they squirrel it away, they could then confront the world with a fait accompli, that's one possible definition.

I believe the administration and the Israelis have been talking about what's the range of Iranian capabilities that would put Iran in a position where they could confront the world with a fait accompli before we could do something about it. Then prevention wouldn't have a meaning.

So while there isn't a precise understanding yet or on the use of force, I do think those discussions on definition of prevention are quite significant.

CONAN: We're talking about Iran ahead of tonight's third and final presidential debate. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Officials in Jordan said today 11 men suspected of ties to al-Qaeda have been charged with terrorism conspiracy. Jordanian authorities said yesterday they've broken up a plot to attack shopping malls and diplomatic posts in the country. According to the Associated Press, all 11 men are Jordanians; all reportedly confessed to plotting the attacks and to illegal possession of weapons and explosives, many of the weapons believed to have come from Syria.

The Middle East will likely loom large over tonight's presidential debate, the final debate before next month's election, one focused on foreign policy and national security. Our focus today: Iran. We split our phone lines for this conversation. If you're leaning Republican, what will you be listening for when the subject turns to the Middle East and Iran? 800-344-3864, again that's 800-344-3864. If you're leaning Democratic, same question, different phone number, 800-344-3893, again 800-344-3893.

Our guests are Dennis Ross, longtime diplomat who served under several administrations, most recently as a special assistant to President Obama. He's now counselor and distinguished scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also with us, Aaron David Miller, who served as State Department advisor on the Middle East under six secretaries of state, vice president now at the Wilson Center.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to the Democratic line. Ray's(ph) with us from Miami.

RAY: Hi, I'm (unintelligible) politicaldoctors.com, we support the peace in Egypt that Ambassador Ross has presented here, and I believe that maybe the Iranians over-exaggerate what they have and what they can do. So we should - before going any further, we should give peace a chance and be sure that we may be able to engage in sanctions and things that are already creating a positive effect in the situation so far. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And Aaron David Miller, as you said earlier, it's likely that whoever is elected on November 6 will give negotiations a chance, give peace a chance. But I wonder, do you see - the Romney camp has said the president has been weak and vacillating. Of course the Obama camp says do you mean prevent Iran from gaining a weapon, which he said on one time - or both sides have accused each other of mixed messages.

And the mixed messages sometimes are in the form of yes, you hear the president of the United States says we will do whatever it takes - whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from getting a weapon. Yet others in the administration say, the generals and the defense officials say this would be very difficult to intervene militarily, and the signal the Republicans see sometimes from that is that, well, you're undermining the other side of the message.

MILLER: Yeah, I mean, ultimately, though, the decision is going to be made by the president, his own temperament and the reality that he inherits. And there's a context here, as well. Look, we're coming off the two longest wars in American history, where victory has been defined not by can we win, but by when can we leave.

And for a great power, extrication is not a standard by which you'd want to measure success. Any president faced with the extent of our own broken house is going to want to consider very carefully the consequences of a unilateral military move that is going to create considerable turmoil in a region that we can't leave, but we also at the same time can't fix.

So I come back here to the notion of campaigning versus governance. Mitt Romney by definition, it seems to me, is not an ideologue. He has demonstrated, yeah, he's had to keep his pragmatism, frankly, under control in order to unite the Republican Party and win the primaries, but I suspect that given the domestic priorities and the degree of difficulty involved in trying to conduct a military operation that is effective - Dennis talked about delay. I think in the end, and he's made this point before, he's absolutely right, the question is in the end you're not talking about stopping the mullahs from acquiring a weapon, you're talking about delay. And delay again, given the risks and consequences of military action, is a - not terribly reliable. It may be the best standard we have, but it isn't the one that is going to guarantee, quote-unquote, "victory."

CONAN: Ambassador Ross, we have to let you go for another appointment, but I wanted to ask you: If there's one thing you're going to be listening for tonight as the candidates discuss Iran, what would that be?

ROSS: Well, I think the critical question is going to be: What are you going to do to try to deal with prevention, one? Two, how do you envision diplomacy at this point? And three, what do you do if diplomacy fails, and how much time are you prepared to give diplomacy before you draw that conclusion?

CONAN: Ambassador Ross, thanks very much for your time, we appreciate it. We understand you have another appointment, but thanks very much for dropping by.

ROSS: My pleasure, thank you.

CONAN: Dennis Ross, with us from a studio at Georgetown University in Washington. Again, he's, well, been in a lot of different jobs but most recently as a special advisor to President Obama on Iran. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the line, and this is on the Republican line, but Paul(ph), I understand, lists himself as undecided. Go ahead, Paul.

PAUL: Yes, sir, I had a hard time figuring out which one to call on because I cannot consistently say that I'm leaning towards either of them.


PAUL: It's a weird thing. But I recognize that Iran is not an honest player in the situation, but I'm going to be listening very closely tonight to see if there is any possibility that either one of them thinks that maybe, just possibly, we're giving Iran a reason to feel like they need a deterrent, all the talk from Israel, all the talk from America. I don't know. I'll listen off air, thank you.

CONAN: All right, Paul, thanks very much for the call. And yeah, I mean, there's no shortage of threats that Iran has been hearing. Again, they say it's all for peaceful purposes. There's a great deal of skepticism about that, but there's no smoking gun.

MILLER: I don't think - to Paul's other point, whether or not you're going to hear from either the president or his Republican challenger a sense of any empathy or sympathy for the Iranian position, I doubt it. The debate is not going to be edifying and clarifying, I think, either man's position on red lines, how much time they will give diplomacy, whether or not they'll use military force and at what point.

But I think you do really - you have this question. The four nuclear powers outside of the five permanent members of the Security Council all are profoundly insecure, and the Iranians are not just insecure, they're grandiose, as well. And I think they want at least the capacity to develop a weapon.

Now if in fact they're prepared for serious diplomacy and we're prepared to do serious diplomacy, maybe there'll be a common basis on which we can reach an agreement.

CONAN: And then you get to the argument should they be allowed any capacity to refine uranium whatsoever.

MILLER: Yeah, and that is going to be a - that's why the Israelis, frankly, are nervous, because I think the Israelis believe that the international community, P5-plus-1, may well have a much more flexible standard about how much - what percentage of enrichment they will allow.

CONAN: The P5-plus-1 is all the permanent members...

MILLER: Sorry, plus Germany.

CONAN: Security Council plus Germany.

MILLER: Plus Germany - in order to secure a deal. I think there's going to be a high degree of war avoidance no matter who gets to be the next president of the United States. And they're going to try diplomacy. Whether the Iranians are able or willing to say yes to a credible offer on the civilian nuclear side is simply unclear right now.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Andre, and Andre's with us from the site of tonight's debate in Boca Raton in Florida on the Republican line.

ANDRE: Hi, thank you very much for having me. I'm also an independent, not sure which way to go, but one of the things I'd like to bring up, I'd like to hear from them, that doesn't get brought up often either in the media or certainly at debates is our forward operating bases abroad. I'm not sure if they're forward operating or if they're just strategic bases. But it concerns me that we have so many of them and so many troops, and can we actually draw down, as some libertarians say, and still maintain a strong force out there? And that's my question. Thank you, I'll take it off the air.

CONAN: All right, Andre, thanks very much for the call. And this was, as he suggested, is something that Ron Paul and other libertarians have brought up in the course of the campaign. And in the Iranian context, they have said if they are attacked by Israel or the United States, they will equate it one as the same, they would attack American bases in the Middle East, and that would include, of course, the Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, the air bases that the United States uses in Qatar and other places.

MILLER: It's hard to imagine during this period of uncertainty, where you want to maintain disincentives as well as incentives, that we're going to be able to lower our - we would even want to lower our profile. We're going to have to combine very deftly, whoever the next president is, a series of carrots and sticks in order to make this work.

It literally is going to require the kind of diplomacy that Nixon and Kissinger used, and it's going to have to be clandestine diplomacy, as well, I suspect, direct diplomacy, if there's going to be anything like a sustainable deal. At the same time, I don't think we're going to want to reduce the pressure on the Iranians in terms of sanctions or our forward deployments. We have to find the right balance between disincentives, that we are serious about using force, and we're not retrenching in incentives.

CONAN: And the United States has been maintaining two carrier groups, aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf and recently issued a statement that's going to continue for, I guess, the foreseeable future.

MILLER: Exactly. Because you have the ever-present - I think it's a rhetorical threat of an Iranian intention to try to close the Straits of Hormuz. So I think, in large part, we will remain our active-ready posture.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to Colin. Colin on the Democratic line with us from Iowa.

COLIN: Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. My - what I'd like to hear from Obama tonight particularly is to put to bed the issue of Libya and what we did know and didn't know. I suspect that's what the president is up to because otherwise he would have said something already, but it just gives Romney a chance to speculate. And we don't need speculation. We need facts.

CONAN: Well, Benghazi certainly came up, Aaron David Miller, in the last debate.

MILLER: I think it's going to be very difficult to put this issue to rest. I mean, I think the president has to basically - first of all, he has to accept personal responsibility. He can't allow Susan Rice, undersecretary of state, certainly not the secretary of state.

CONAN: Which he did last time.

MILLER: Right. To be the last person in the hierarchy on this one. But I think he also has to admit that there were mistakes made, and that there was a premature effort perhaps for the most sincere of reasons to inject some clarity in a situation that was really fundamentally unclear. And there's a cautionary tale here. Rarely are these initial reports amidst the swirl and the fog and the confusion of the first several hours and days reliable. And the administration, I think, never willfully misled.

I do think the Republican charge that in fact if the president killed al-Qaida and al-Qaida is dead, then why are we seeing al-Qaida footprints in Benghazi, perhaps, and with this attack, disrupted attack that was reported in today's Washington Post against - presumably against our embassy in Oman? Why is al-Qaida alive? And I think the president has to be political on this, but also substantive. The fact is you're dealing with contractors, and al-Qaida as an organization, you may have cut off the head but the essence of much of the organization is still operative and still active, and I think events in Libya and in Jordan suggest that as well.

So don't muddy the issue. And Romney has to be careful as well. He was extremely aggressive last time on this. He was caught up in a semantic debate which Candy Crowley essentially corrected him, and he lost. The two men will be seated tonight, so this notion of looming around one another won't be as ever present as it was visibly in the last debate. So that will lower the temperature somewhat. But both men have to be careful that they don't be drawn into the minutia of the Libyan episode because there's no answers here. But acceptance of responsibility is important.

CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller in advance of tonight's foreign policy debate in Boca Raton, Florida, vice president now at the Wilson Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And a quick question: the president has some advantages as commander in chief; last time asked about that event in Libya, he was able to say when I greeted the coffins from - at Dover, how dare you? And yet, is it the same time the commander in chief, well, he can't say some things. He can't talk a lot about, for example, the drone program. There are things he can't say.

MILLER: It's true, and Governor Romney, look, has an advantage in the sense that he has a counterfactual presidency and a counterfactual foreign policy. He can actually say what he would do, and he can argue for more clarity, for more leadership, but in fact, it's rhetoric. The president has to conduct policy in a - and actually choose between very bad options. So the president will run on his very competent record, with some exceptions, and the governor will run on a platform of we have to inject more leadership; Iran, Syria and, of course, the failure of muddled messaging and intelligence on Libya.

CONAN: One last call. We go to the Republican line. This is Courtney with us from San Antonio.

COURTNEY: Hi. I'm a military wife here in San Antonio, and my main concern is with this whole situation going on in Libya. What's the likeliness that my husband is going to have to deploy again? He just returned home from a tour in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller?

MILLER: Unlikely. On this one, I think, you can sleep easy. Boots on the ground after Iraq and Afghanistan, no, for either Romney or President Obama, at least as regards to situations that we now have - Iran, Syria and Libya.


CONAN: Feel better, Courtney?

COURTNEY: Yeah. A lot better.


CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call.

COURTNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, foreign policy, generally not seen as an issue that rivets the American public. We're told jobs, jobs, jobs. It's the economy that's what's going to decide this election, yet everybody is pointing to tonight's debate in an election that seems to be very, very close as something that could be absolutely critical.

MILLER: You know, if you'd asked me three months ago whether you would have this sort of intense focus on foreign policy, I would have said no way. But several things have happened. Number one, the race has tightened considerably. Number two, the world has intruded, and it's...

CONAN: In terms of Libya.

MILLER: In terms of Libya. It's a very cruel and unforgiving world for an incumbent president. And finally, I think we have to deal with the reality that, substance aside, this had been an extremely substantive conversation that we've been having. We haven't really talked about politics. The fact is the president was accused of sleeping during the first debate. He made a great recovery during the second. It is now one on one, one to one in terms of the debate in a very close election.

This debate will go to the man who - whose talking points are better, who appears to be likable and presidential at the same time and who appears to have the kind of command of the material to at least convince most of the 60 to 70 million people who are watching that he knows what he's doing with respect to the stewardship of the nation's diplomacy and its security. And frankly, right now, I think that it could go either way.

CONAN: And the kind of, well, the issues we look for - up until now, foreign policy has not been strong suit of Governor Romney. He hit some stumbles on his foreign policy trip this past summer. As you say, on Libya, he swung and missed with a technical mistake.

MILLER: I think they'll be - they will be preparing him very well in order to be much more sober, much less excitable, certainly on the Libya question. And remember, he's sharing the stage with the president of the United States. He has demonstrated he can do that. Now the question is, can he trump the president when it comes to foreign policy? A lot of people will be watching to try to find out.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, thanks as always.

MILLER: It's a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, who served as state department adviser on the Middle East under six secretaries of state, with us here in Studio 3A. Up next, the legacy of former senator George McGovern and lessons for life after a run for president. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.