The New York Times report Saturday that the U.S. is on the verge of opening direct talks with Iran on the country's nuclear program will return the presidential campaign foreign policy debate, in its final days, to the regional conflict that has been at its center for most of the year: Iran and Israel.
The rise of China, the bloody drug wars on America's southern border, the teetering European currency, and even the Arab Spring have all faded in the politics of 2012 behind President Obama's chilly relations with the Israeli government and his determination not to go to war with Iran. In recent weeks, the assassination of an American ambassador in Libya and the Administration's murky response to it had turned the campaign toward, in broad strokes, questions over the meaning of change in the Muslim world and some conservatives' doubts about whether democracy will produce chaos and extremism.
But Governor Mitt Romney has struggled to make that argument stick without looking crassly political or, in last week's debate, botching a detail in a way that undermined his argument, and his own camp is conflicted about Muslim democracy.
Iran, however, is one arena in which Republicans believe they have a strong case to make. Neither Obama's early, extended hand, nor his later push toward sanctions, appear to have stopped the country's nuclear program, which Iran asserts — to international skepticism — is peaceful.
Romney's campaign had no comment Saturday, but Republicans said they expect Iran, and Saturday's news, to take center stage in the final debate of the presidential cycle Monday, which will focus on foreign policy.
"This whole thing should be a gift for Mitt," said a Republican operative who works on foreign policy. "It's an embarrassing reminder
of how little progress they've made on Iran and it comes on the eve of the foreign policy debate."
"It's a big opportunity, but there is a lot of risk after Tuesday night," said another Republican, who is close to the campaign, referring to Romney's Libya stumble last week.
The Times reported Saturday that "the United States and Iran have agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran."
The White House immediately challenged the claim, with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor emailing reporters:
It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P5+1* on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally. The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that. It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.
And the Times then amended its story to add the caveat "in principle" — but an Administration official did not dispute that there has been movement in ongoing talks with Iran, though the official said it remains unclear whether its Iranian interlocutors are willing or able to make a deal.
It's "unclear what it all means — except that Iran is under pressure and working to find a path out," said Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, a Democratic group.
"It's sort of well known that if Iran meets its obligations we will meet with them," said another Washington, D.C. foreign policy observer. "That's code for 'Roll over and stop enriching.'"
What is clearer is that the ambiguous report inserted Iran back in the center of the political conversation 48 hours before the foreign policy debate in Florida Monday night, the last debate of the campaign.
And the Iranian situation — complex and maddening in its details — offers in broad strokes a real glimpse at the difference between the parties' foreign policy postures. For all the talk of plans, Romney does not offer a clear alternative beyond a promise to project strength; he has not promised air strikes. But foreign policy is more a matter of reaction and instinct than of planning, and Iran and the Middle East peace process have been the two most visible arenas in which Obama's belief in the power of his own leadership, and of a new White House posture toward the Muslim world, fell short.
President Obama promised an extended hand — he even said, on the campaign trail in 2008, that he would meet the leader of Iran, something that never occurred. Obama was slow to forcefully support the Iranian opposition during the 2009 "Green Revolution," and held out hope of a diplomatic breakthrough that hasn't come.
It's a notable failure in a foreign policy marked by the end of the war in Iraq, an increase in drone strikes on suspected terrorists and crowned by the killing of Osama bin Laden — things Obama is far more eager to discuss Monday night.
"This has played so big in the campaign this year because the GOP sees it as their best counter-narrative to the death of Osama bin Laden and dramatic weakening of Al Qaeda," said Hurlburt.
Romney has, however, stopped short of promising an attack on Iran — a recognition of how reluctant the American public is to engage in another war in the Muslim world — and Democrats see the lack of a clear alternative beyond "strength" as Obama's best defense.
"It has not played so big, interestingly, because Romney has an alternative strategy — he doesn't," Hurlburt said.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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