Mitt Romney bear-hugged President Barack Obama on almost all issues during the foreign policy debate. Even on Iran, the issue where Republican criticism of Obama has been most substantive, loud and aggressive, Romney adopted a relatvely timid tone, playing it safe and shielding himself from charges of being a "warmonger."
But if Romney wins, will his policies be a bit more aggressive, with more sanctions and a tougher negotiation posture? Or will he be just the hawk Obama sought to portray him as? Romney's not likely to shift on Iran in the short run. Yet, a Romney victory is very likely to bring about a very different dynamic between the U.S. and Iran, with an increased likelihood of war—even if Romney prefers a different outcome.
There isn't much that suggests that a Romney administration would pursue diplomacy with Iran, at least not with the vigor and patience needed to make it work. But even if President Romney would favor reinvigorating diplomacy, he would not be able to take advantage of the best window of opportunity for a negotiated outcome that is soon approaching.
Between November 8, 2012, and mid-March 2013, a unique opportunity exists top make diplomatic headway on the nuclear issue. The U.S. elections will be over and the White House will have maximum political maneuverability. This leeway was eaten away in 2009 by the Iranian election fraud and pressure from some U.S. allies and Congress, and didn't exist this past summer, when political considerations prevented the U.S. from putting sanctions relief on the table.
By March of next year, the window will begin to close—not because of the American political calendar, but the Iranian one. After the New Year holidays, which start March 20, Iran enters its political season with presidential elections in June. Tehran will be politically paralyzed at least till the elections. If there is a repeat of the 2009 fraud, the paralysis could reign much longer.
Unlike Obama, Romney will not be able take advantage of this opportunity. Romney will spend the first few months of 2013 to populate his administration and determine what his approach to Iran should be. Obama, on the other hand, has a commitment to diplomacy, a sunk-cost investment in the process, and an ability to hit the ground running. He its already planning on capitalizing on the opportunity, with a new round of talks reportedly being prepared for late November.
With Romney losing precious time and opportunity, he will likely fall back on just focusing on further intensifying sanctions - which would not be a departure from the current Obama policy that has intensified sanctions consistently since 2010. In the absence of serious diplomacy and the capitalization of crucial opportunities for diplomatic headway, the U.S. and Iran will continue to gravitate towards war.
But Romney may have a leg up on Obama on one crucial aspect determining the risk of war—his perceived close ties to Israel. Romney may have a stronger ability to resist pressure from Israel to go to war. Republican Party disciplines and loyalty trends to be stronger than that of the Democrats. Once a President Romney chooses a path on Iran, Republican Israel allies in Congress are not likely to challenge their President from the right in the manner that the Democratic-controlled Congress challenged Obama in the summer of 2009—only months after he had taken office. Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not opt to publicly pressure a Republican administration the way he does Obama's.
So Obama might be better positioned to make a deal, and Romney more likely to push forward a dangerous status quo. Despite all the bear-hugging, there's plenty of daylight between the candidates' Iran policies.