The Vice Presidential Debate: Differences on Iran

The Vice Presidential Debate: Consequential Statements on Iran (Download in PDF)

Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon requires three stages of development.  First, Iran must enrich uranium from 20% up to greater than 90% purity.  Second, Iran must develop a trigger mechanism to detonate a bomb.  Third, Iran must have a delivery system for transporting the bomb, typically a long range missile system.  To date, Iran has made significant progress towards enriching uranium, but progress on the missile system and trigger mechanism are believed to be not as advanced.  The “red line” in this process is the point at which Iran’s nuclear program is on the verge of completing a nuclear bomb.  Traditional views ascribe the “red line” as Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, because once this step occurs, the transition to a nuclear bomb is possible in a very short time period.  For example, Israel’s Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a similar argument before the UN a few weeks ago—literally drawing a red line for Israeli military intervention at the 90% enrichment.

The Vice Presidential debate on October 11th between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan illuminated their perspectives on the Iranian nuclear proliferation issue.  Their comments anticipate how each Presidential candidate would handle foreign policy issues.  When asked about the American “red line” for military intervention in the crisis, each candidate made contrasting statements.  Viewers should consider the consequences of these statements, and look for clarification from President Obama and Candidate Romney during the upcoming October 22nd foreign policy debate.  

Vice President Biden defined the U.S.’s “red line” as the point at which Iran will be able to build a bomb trigger mechanism and affix the payload to a missile.

“They have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up.  Then they have to be able to have something to put it in.  There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point.  Both the Israelis and we know we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.  So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?  What — what more can the president do?  Stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah: We will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he’s [Paul Ryan] talking about going to war.”

This statement differs from the current international community’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program.  The current economic sanctions program is meant to deter Iran from nuclear enrichment.  Success is measured by whether Iran withdraws from enrichment activities, it has no bearing on Iran’s ability to build a trigger mechanism or missile payload delivery system.  If the U.S.’s “red line” for intervention is Iran’s ability to build a bomb trigger mechanism, this policy significantly diverges from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “red line”, which he defined in a UN speech as Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear material to the 90% mark.  The implications of Vice President Biden’s remarks are that Iran can enrich fissile material without limit; the U.S. would intervene only when Iran has the capability to put the nuclear material into a deliverable weapon system.  Biden cited his confidence in the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to determine precisely when Iran has the ability to build a deliverable weapon.  Will President Obama make a similar statement on his “red line” during the October 22nd debate?

Congressman Paul Ryan’s perspectives on Iran suggests a different take on sanctions, enrichment, and “red lines.”

“I don’t want to go into classified stuff, but we both agree that to do this peacefully, you’ve got to get them to change their minds…They [Obama Administration] have given 20 waivers to this sanction.  And all I have to point to are the results. They’re four years closer toward a nuclear weapon…They’re closer to being able to get enough fissile material to put in a weapon if they had a weapon.  And what it does is it — and it undermines our credibility by backing up the point when we make it that all options are on the table.  That’s the point.  The ayatollahs see these kinds of statements, and they think, I’m going to get a nuclear weapon.  When — when we see the kind of equivocation that took place because this administration wanted a precondition policy — so when the Green Revolution started up, they were silent for nine days.  When they see us putting — when they see us putting daylight between ourselves and our allies in Israel, that gives them encouragement.  When they see Russia watering down any further sanctions — and the only reason we got a U.N. sanction is because Russia watered it down and prevented these from being sanctions in the first place.  So when they see this kind of activity, they are encouraged to continue, and that’s the problem.”

Ryan’s view differs from Biden’s in several ways.  First, he emphasizes that the levels of  uranium enrichment are indeed significant.  He argues that U.S. policy on Iran should draw the “red line” at the level of enrichment.  Moreover, he argues that sanctions should be strengthened and loopholes tightened.  Second, when the moderator, Martha Raddatz, asked “What—let me ask you what’s worse: war in the Middle East, another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear armed Iran?”, Ryan responded with a striking comment on the Romney ticket’s foreign policy approach.

“I’ll tell you what’s worse.  A nuclear-armed Iran, which triggers a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  This is the world’s largest sponsor of — of terrorism.  They’ve dedicated themselves —to wiping an entire country off the map. They call us the Great Satan.  And if they get nuclear weapons, other people in the neighborhood will pursue their nuclear weapons as well.  We can’t live with that.”

Ryan’s comment suggests that going to war with Iran to prevent it from attaining a nuclear weapon would be preferable to living with a nuclear-capable Iran.  U.S. military intervention in Iran would pose significant challenges, both militarily and economically: Iranian reprisals in the Strait of Hormuz would be expected; the military would surely experience casualties; the risk of a global economic shock that could tip us back into recession; an increase in terrorist strikes against U.S. assets abroad and closer to home is likely; and the chance of the intervention growing into a larger regional war is significant.  Paul Ryan’s contention that a U.S. military intervention is more favorable than living with a nuclear armed Iran may be accurate, but this is a  statement that—although often implied—has rarely been vocalized by a U.S. politician on such a public stage.

Pundits quibble on whether Vice Presidential debates matter for determining the election.  That may be so, but actual foreign policy objectives on Iran will have significant consequences for U.S. national security.  John F. Kennedy once said that “domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”  The stakes with Iran are indeed high.  Americans should watch the October 22nd Presidential debate on foreign policy with a close eye to see if either candidate clarifies their policy on dealing with Iran’s nuclear proliferation.

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