President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney vied on Monday over who was Israel’s strongest defender but both agreed that a military strike over Iran’s nuclear program must be a “last resort.”
Tehran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is for developing weapons and that economic sanctions have so far failed to stop, is almost certain to be among the top foreign policy challenges facing the next president.
Yet Romney and Obama, in their foreign policy debate, did not offer sharply contrasting policies to address the challenge. They agreed on the need for tough economic pressure - and for safeguarding U.S. ally Israel.
“If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily,” Romney said.
“I will stand with Israel if they are attacked,” Obama said.
Iran’s leaders have from time to time threatened to eradicate Israel, and Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Israel has its own undeclared nuclear arsenal.
The question that has risen repeatedly this year is whether Israel would conduct a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, which would put the United States in a difficult position of whether to enter another Middle East conflict.
The United States and its allies have significantly ratcheted up sanctions against Iran. Obama has often said all options are on the table, but has counseled that diplomacy and sanctions must have a chance to work.
The candidates did not say what they would do if Israel conducted a unilateral strike on Iran, and at one point Romney brushed aside a hypothetical question on what he would do if the Israeli prime minister called to inform him Israel’s bombers were en route to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that, during the course of this campaign, he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action,” Obama said at the final debate before the Nov. 6 election.
“I think that would be a mistake, because when I’ve sent young men and women into harm’s way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort,” he said.
Romney and Obama both said it was important to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“We need to increase pressure, time and time again, on Iran because anything other than … a solution to this … which stops this, this nuclear folly of theirs, is unacceptable to America,” Romney said.