10/21/2012 09:48 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Iran Talks Surprise Has Observers Mystified Ahead Of Foreign Policy Debate

At first, the news from The New York Times Saturday evening that the U.S. and Iran had agreed "in principle" to one-on-one nuclear negotiations, had every appearance of an "October surprise" -- a last-second international event designed to tip the scales toward the commander in chief.

After all, it came a little more than two weeks before the end of the presidential campaign, and on the eve of the final debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, which is slated to focus on foreign policy. Pundits wasted no time in delivering instantaneous analysis on how the news would impact the race.

But a day later, and after the White House formally denied the report, there is little clarity about what impact, if any, the news of the negotiations could have on the remainder of the race, or on Monday's debate in Boca Raton, Fla.

"It's going to be interesting to see how the candidates handle it, especially because you've had the White House basically deny the story," said Jamie Fly, the executive director of the conservative Foreign Policy Institute. "My guess is there will be some skepticism on both sides during the debate. I don't think either will go all in on the issue."

Over the course of Sunday, surrogates for both campaigns discussed the Iran revelations, but without the typical sort of vigor that might characterize a topic that was expected to seize headlines. Analysts found themselves largely mystified.

Two prominent missing voices in the conversation were those of the candidates themselves, both of whom seemed to go out of their way to avoid addressing it on Sunday. Both Obama and Romney spent the day sequestered in campaign prep.

The one time Romney emerged, to play a game of pick-up football on the beach, he ignored a question about Iran from the press pool. A campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post.

One of the few comments from the Romney team came from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who criticized the move in an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press."

“The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies on this and to make it a one-on-one negotiation,” said Portman, who has been helping Romney prep for the debates.

Most of the other comments from political figures on Sunday were uncharacteristically reticent. On CBS's "Face the Nation," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) opted to not discuss the reports at all, since the White House had denied them.

"I don't think there's anything further to comment on that story," Rubio said.

David Axelrod, one of Obama's top political advisers, did discuss Iran negotiations on "Meet the Press," but only in abstract, while defending the president's policy of pursuing talks.

"For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition," Axelrod said. "And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees. They're feeling the heat. And that's what the sanctions were meant to do."

Asked on Sunday which candidate had emerged with an advantage from the negotiations story, two Iran policy experts offered The Huffington Post opposing views.

"I don't see how the administration uses it as a success story," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and a longtime advocate of U.S.-Iran talks. "Obama's going to try to make the argument that the sanctions are working, that we got the Iranians back to the table. And Romney is going to say, 'After four years, this is your idea of success?'"

On the other hand, said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the news might make it somewhat harder for Romney to challenge Obama's tactics without shifting towards militancy.

"The only thing Romney can really do to get to the right of Obama on Iran policy is to say he'd bomb Iran if elected president, or would actively promote and pursue a policy of regime change," Sadjadpour said. "Given the misgivings Americans have about the Iraq war, I don't think those are winning talking points for him."

That is, of course, assuming the issue has any effect at all.

"I don't really see it having a meaningful impact on the presidential campaign," Sadjadpour said. "I'd venture that more Americans are interested in Kim Kardashian-Kanye West relations than they are US-Iran relations."



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