10/29/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Missing Debate Over Red Lines for Iran

Last Monday's foreign policy debate was supposed to provide a contrast between two competing visions about America's role in the world, the path forward in the Middle East, and the 21st century threats over the horizon.

At the core of the debate was the question of American policy towards Iran -- a country mentioned 40 times by both candidates -- with an entire segment devoted to discussing "Red Lines -- Israel and Iran." This topic -- so hotly debated in Washington, Jerusalem, and at the United Nations General Assembly over the past several months -- was designed to clarify the differences between Governor Romney and President Obama on their vision for handling the thorniest foreign policy issue of the day.

For Washington neoconservatives, this was to be a moment of triumph. While President Obama has repeatedly committed his administration to the red line of preventing Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, this has not been seen as aggressive enough by neoconservatives, who prefer earlier red lines that could trigger military action.

Yet judging by Monday's performance, they must have been greatly disappointed, as the opportunity for Romney to press Obama to commit to counterproductive red lines fizzled.

Here's what the two candidates said about their vision of redlines for U.S. policy towards Iran's nuclear program.

Obama: "... as long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I made that clear when I came into office."

Romney: "... with regards to Iran and the threat of Iran, there's no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran is unacceptable to America."

That was it. The word "red line" never actually even crossed the lips of either candidate. And there was zero commitment to use military force by either candidate at a specific time.

However, while both candidates appeared to have a common view on Iran leaving the debate, the subtle distinctions in their language shed light on their clear policy differences. While President Obama has consistently made his redline about preventing an Iranian bomb, Governor Romney actually confused the discussion by expressing opposition to an Iranian nuclear-capability that they already have.

Since at least the time of the Bush administration, according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran has been a nuclear-capable country. According to the U.S. Intelligence Community, "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." Fortunately, and for a variety of reasons, Iran has not decided to make a weapon nor does it have sufficient weapons-grade fissile material for one.

So where does this leave Romney's Iran policy? While he avoided committing himself to military action against Iran in front of the American public, his policy vision towards Iran would appear to open the door for that option now. That is certainly how Washington's leading neoconservatives are attempting to interpret his remarks.

Seizing an opportunity to leverage Romney's opaque policy, neoconservatives such as Mark Dubowitz and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in the Wall Street Journal only days after the foreign policy debate that the U.S. should set a January 2014 redline for military action.

This 2014 date was based upon an arbitrary assertion by the authors that it would take six months for Iranian economic disaster, caused by ongoing crippling international sanctions, to "fully affect the regime" and change its nuclear calculus. It's not clear how the authors arrived at such a date. After all, Iran's regime endured eight years of war and economic destruction during the 1980s without falling. There is no crystal ball for predicting either Iranian economic or governmental collapse.

So while we know what President Obama's red line is, we are left confused by Governor Romney's definition. And with prominent neoconservative allies of Dubowitz and Gerecht advising Romney, such as John Bolton, it's not at all certain that Romney won't take their red lines advice once in office.

However, doing so would prompt a commitment by Romney to military action that he did not verbalize at the debate. And it would run counter to the views of leading Republican security experts, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who describe military action as counterproductive to the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.

By not having an open and clarifying debate about how the candidates will prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, the country was ill served. Unfortunately, the American people lost a chance to hear more about the very real contrasts between these two candidates on how they propose to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill's Congress Blog.