Debate Preview: Romney Aide On How GOP Nominee Would Confront Iran

Oct 15, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 7:45 am

A President Mitt Romney would make the "military option" a credible threat in the effort to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons by repeatedly saying that it "remains on the table, that it is real" and by making sure that senior officials don't imply otherwise, a top foreign policy adviser to the 2012 Republican presidential nominee tells Morning Edition.

Dan Senor, who was spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq during the early years of the war there, says in a conversation with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that the Obama administration has made a mistake by saying that a military strike remains an option but then having Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talk in public about the problems associated with taking such action.

"If you want to talk to our allies" about the difficulties involved, Senor says, "do it behind closed doors. By broadcasting it in public the way the administration has done, it has sent one message to Tehran — which is that we are absolutely not serious, that the credibility of the threat is not there — and it has sent the exact same message to our allies."

Senor's comments on just what the Romney campaign thinks the Obama administration has done wrong concerning the "military option" are a bit more specific than those laid out last week by GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan during his debate with Vice President Biden.

During that faceoff, Biden said that Panetta "has made it absolutely clear. He didn't walk anything back. We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon." And as for the military option itself, Biden said "we feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians."

Last December at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Panetta said "the president has made it very clear that we have not taken any options off the table." He added, though, that a strike "would only, I think, ultimately not destroy their ability to produce an atomic weapon, but simply delay it" and might end up consuming the Middle East "in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret."

Senor's comments could be, of course, a preview of what Romney himself will have to say Tuesday evening during the next presidential debate if the subject of Iran and the military option comes up.

Much more from the conversation with Senor is due on Tuesday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. We'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post after the show airs.

As we've done in the previous debates, we'll live-blog Tuesday over on It's All Politics. The town hall-style debate at Hofstra University is set to begin at 9 p.m. ET.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she takes responsibility for security in Libya this past September 11. That's when attackers struck the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed four Americans. In TV interviews last night, she said decisions about security are made by professionals who work for her.


Security before that attack has become a matter of partisan debate, as we've reported. It may well come up in the final two presidential debates between Mitt Romney and President Obama. In the vice presidential debate, Republican Paul Ryan described the attack as a symptom.


INSKEEP: To hear more of that broader argument, we contacted a senior adviser to Mitt Romney yesterday. Dan Senor is a former national security official in President George W. Bush's administration. Does a terrorist attack on 9-11 mean that the administration in power's policy is failing?

DAN SENOR: Well, I think if it were an isolated incident, it would be tragic. It's not an isolated incident. You see Iran getting closer to a nuclear weapon. In Syria you have some 30,000 people slaughtered by Bashar Assad. In various capitals around the Middle East over the last few weeks, we've seen extremist groups storming the streets, in some cases storming our embassies. And then when you think about what happened in Benghazi in that context, it's a worrisome trend.

INSKEEP: But I want to ask about that a little bit more. Because while there is certainly a trail of intelligence failures to track down in that incident, isn't that an attack that would be plotted, would be attempted regardless of who was president of the United States?

SENOR: Look, there are a number of issues of here. I mean one, obviously, is the lead-up to the attack. Was there intelligence that indicated that there could be some sort of terrorist activity in Libya? Were there repeated security requests to provide more security measures and resources, which we learned from the testimony of senior State Department officials that there were requests and those requests were denied. Those are real questions...

INSKEEP: Although let's be clear - although let's be clear. Some of those might not have affected security. There was a request for a DC-3 airplane, for example. It's hard to see how that would have affected security one way or another.

SENOR: There was also a request for personnel. Steve, these are legitimate questions that people are asking and we need to learn more about.

INSKEEP: Would an attack like that not happen if Mitt Romney were president?

SENOR: Oh, look - some folks have tried to assert that. We're simply saying there were security requests for additional security resources. They appear to have been denied. There were a series of misleading statements after the incident claiming that the attack was in response to a YouTube video, a spontaneous mob that turned into a terrorist attack. Those we now know aren't true. And yet the administration stuck to those explanations. Those other failures around the region we certainly believe could be addressed by a Romney administration. We would have a different approach to Iran. We would have tightened sanctions sooner than the Obama administration did. A Romney administration would not send such mixed signals related to the credibility of the military threat. So there are certain things across the region that a President Romney would have done differently and would do differently.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some of those other things in the region. First with Iran. When Governor Romney gave a foreign policy speech a number of days ago, he talked about sanctions on Iran. He also talked about action against Iran. But a lot of analysts reading that speech were hard-pressed to find something he would actually do differently than President Obama is doing right now.

SENOR: Yeah. So this is extremely important. We believe one of the reasons the Iranian regime is moving so quickly towards a nuclear weapons and why the Iranian regime has become more brazen in its support of terrorism is because we have lost credibility in dealing with them. We have sent so many mixed signals. For the first two years of the administration, Congress was pushing for tough economic sanctions, particularly on Iran's central bank, and the Obama administration fought it tooth and nail. It was only because of strong bipartisan support in Congress that the sanctions got passed.

INSKEEP: But I'm looking at the news right now and Iran's currency is collapsing and even this week Europeans have approved another round of sanctions against Iran. It seems like the sanctions part is pretty strong at the moment.

SENOR: The sanctions are strong to the extent that they've weakened the Iranian economy, but the ultimate result is Iran slowing down its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. So even though its economy is in rough shape, it's not having an effect on the nuclear program.

INSKEEP: Does Governor Romney believe that if it comes to it, if it comes to that moment, and he's president of the United States, that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities can succeed and do more good than harm?

SENOR: You know, his view is we need a peaceful resolution to this crisis and Iran needs to stop enriching uranium, period, and stop its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Because if they are successful, it will obviously create a real threat to our allies and potentially us. Two, it will make it possible for Iran to support its terrorist proxies with impunity. Three, it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. If there is a nuclear armed Iran, that is an enormous threat to the United States, the West...

INSKEEP: I don't think...

SENOR: The Obama administration agrees with us on that.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I don't think that's being debated. My question is just whether Governor Romney believes that a military strike can work and do more good than harm.

SENOR: His view is that the military option should be the absolute last option, and there is absolutely no way we can live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

INSKEEP: What do you see as the pros and cons of a military strike, if it came to that, as a final option?

SENOR: You know, it's very difficult, Steve, to have a discussion now about a military option that doesn't exist. It's something that's so far down the road, it's purely a speculative discussion.

INSKEEP: How do you make it a credible threat if you're not willing to say outright that it can work?

SENOR: Well, you make it a credible threat by repeatedly saying that the military option remains on the table, that it is real, and when you say it you don't have senior officials from your administration say it's not that real. So I'll give you very specific examples. The president says the military option is on the table but then Defense Secretary Panetta at a security conference, which was widely covered, he walked through all the problems with a military action, that there would be backlash in the region, that it may not be successful, you may not actually be able to wipe up the program, you just might delay it, that there will be economic repercussions.

INSKEEP: Was he wrong about those things?

SENOR: Secretary Panetta has said that on many occasions. Our only view is, one obviously has to consider these very things he's talking about. And if you want to talk to our allies about it, you absolutely should, but do it behind closed doors. By broadcasting it in public the way the administration has done, it has sent one message to Tehran, which is that we are absolutely not serious, that the credibility of the threat is not there, and it has sent the exact same message to our allies in Israel and in the Gulf Arab countries that are worried about a nuclear Iran.

INSKEEP: Is Panetta wrong about those concerns that he raised?

SENOR: I mean I would let him explain, you know, the reasoning behind each one of those. I'm simply saying if he does evidence and analysis, which he very well might, he should talk about those things with our allies behind closed doors, not do it in public. When you do it in public, you send the wrong message to Iran and to our allies.

INSKEEP: Dan Senor is a senior adviser to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Thanks very much.

SENOR: Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: And you've been listening to him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.