Republican presidential candidates this week — with the exception of Ron Paul — appeared to be trying to outdo each other in saying how tough they would be in dealing with Iran. Speaking before a pro-Israel group, they said President Obama has been weak — "feckless," in Mitt Romney's words.
Obama, meanwhile, was not impressed. He said he'd heard a lot of "bluster" and "big talk" about Iran, "but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years."
In some respects, the Republican candidates' proposals aren't that far off from what the Obama administration is already doing. They call for tough sanctions on Iran, for example, but it's hard to imagine any that are tougher than what the U.S. and its allies have in place now.
Still, there are some differences between Obama's Iran policy and what his Republican critics advocate.
No. 1: How much emphasis to put on negotiations. The Republican candidates all say they'd give some time to diplomacy, but would do it under stricter conditions.
Rick Santorum blasted Obama this week for being willing to join European countries in a new round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
"We now have an announcement that the administration has agreed to open talks with the Iranian government," he said. "That is in spite of U.N. resolutions that say they must stop the processing of their nuclear fuel in order to get those negotiations. Another appeasement, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk."
In fact, the U.N. has called on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, though not as a precondition for negotiations. Santorum's position: no talks until Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium. This is apparently what Israel wants as well. The Obama administration and its European allies say that condition would doom any negotiation.
This point brings up difference No. 2 on Iran between Obama and his challengers: It's on how closely to align U.S. policy with Israeli views.
The United States right now is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring an actual nuclear weapon. Israel, on the other hand, wants to prevent Iran from acquiring even the capability to develop a bomb. For that reason, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel "cannot wait much longer."
The main Republican candidates, in contrast to Obama, seem more willing to defer to Israel's judgment.
"Israel doesn't need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace," Romney said. "It needs our support."
Newt Gingrich went even further, saying he'd give the Israelis whatever intelligence and equipment they'd need to go to war against Iran and wouldn't even expect them to tell the United States when they were ready to move. He would give them this reassurance: "That if an Israeli prime minister decides that he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through pre-emptive measures, that I would require no advance notice."
There's no such green light from the Obama administration, though the president did say Israel has the right to defend itself.
Finally, a third case, this one of a subtle difference between the Republican candidates and the Obama administration: It's over how to signal that military options remain on the table.
Romney, writing in the Washington Post this week, said for example that to deal with Iran, he'd favor "restoring" the "regular presence" of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean. Right now, the U.S. military requires at least one, and generally two, carriers in the Gulf and none in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Moving more into the region would presumably send a message of military might to Iran, but it would mean fewer carriers deployed elsewhere in the world, and U.S. military officials says it's been many, many years since more than two aircraft carriers were assigned permanently to those waters.