On the issue of Iran, the one point where significant differences on substance existed before the debate, Mitt Romney seemed to pull his punches. He predictably attacked Barack Obama on having failed to prevent Iran moving closer to a nuclear capability, for having “betrayed the Iranian people” in 2009 and for having been “unclear about red lines.” But beyond one-liners, Romney did not offer an alternative policy. He only promised to impose more sanctions, faster and earlier than Obama had done, while emphasizing that war is the option of last resort.
The candidates ended up competing about who could cripple Iran’s economy the most through sanctions — without expressing the slightest regard of what this would do to average Iranians who have little to no control (or responsibility) for the policies of their unelected decision-makers. And there was no explaining how the destruction of the Iranian economy would force an Iranian capitulation mindful of the failure of sanctions to alter Iran's nuclear calculations thus far.
In some ways, the debate actually added more confusion about the positions of both candidates on Iran. Romney because he vowed to pursue a different path without providing details, and Obama because he appeared to shift the goal post on Iran.
On three occasions during the debate, Obama stated that the goal was to “end Iran’s nuclear program.” That contradicts previous statements and hints that Obama, in a negotiated settlement, would accept a cap on enrichment below five percent under strict inspections. The administration knows very well if Obama's statement in the debate — which was kept vague — means a return to George W. Bush's zero-enrichment objective, there won’t be a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.
Conceivably, the President kept his statement vague to sound tough in the debate while retaining flexibility at the negotiating table. But it was still a statement that appeared to move Obama closer to Bush on Iran — precisely what the President accused Romney of.
Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran and the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council.