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Presidential debate | 9 p.m.

Focus on Iran in presidential debate run-up

Both campaigns cautious on report of possible talks

The Obama and Romney campaigns jousted over the president’s leadership on Iranian sanctions on Sunday, a day before the candidates focus on foreign policy in their final debate, but both sides were cautious when discussing a reported agreement between the United States and Iran to hold one-on-one talks about nuclear development after Election Day.

The White House has denied that a deal is in place for bilateral negotiations with Iran, and the two campaigns appeared unsure of how such talks would play with voters — whether endorsing the meetings would project diplomacy or naïveté.

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“I don’t want to go too deeply into what may or may not happen because the White House has said there is no deal,” Obama adviser David Axelrod said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In Florida, where Monday’s debate will be held, Mitt Romney declined to say whether he would be open to one-on-one talks with Iran. The former Massachusetts governor was taking a break from debate preparations.

The preliminary agreement between the United States and Iran, reported by The New York Times, would set up the first bilateral discussions between the two countries about Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

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Iran says the program is peaceful, but the United States and its allies believe the goal is to develop a nuclear weapon.

Obama and Romney have resolved to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and each has also said military action should be a last resort.

“I think he’s talked about that. He has said that war and any kind of armed conflict is the last option. Everything else should fail.”

Marco Rubio on Mitt Romney 
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What is unclear is the extent to which either candidate would be willing to make concessions to achieve their shared goals.

According to the Times report, the Obama administration would consider allowing Iran to perform limited uranium enrichment for energy purposes.

Romney has on different occasions described his “red line” on Iran as actual possession of a nuclear weapon and the mere ability to develop one.

Public opinion is shifting toward a hardline stance against Iran’s nuclear program, according to a Pew Research Center poll published last week. In January, 50 percent of voters said it is more important for the United States to take a firm stand than it is to avoid a military conflict; 41 percent said the opposite. The new survey showed the split is now 56 to 35, a 12-point swing toward firmness.

On “Meet the Press,” Romney surrogates sent mixed messages about bilateral talks with Iran. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said Romney would consider one-on-one negotiations.

“I think he’s talked about that,” Rubio said. “He has said that war and any kind of armed conflict is the last option. Everything else should fail. But at the same time, I think he’s very cognizant of the fact that Iran has used negotiations in the past to buy themselves time.”

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Romney’s debate practice partner, said on the same program that “it sounds like the US is taking a position that we’re likely to jettison our allies.”

“The last thing we would want to do is to abandon our allies on this and to make it a one-on-one negotiation,” Portman added.

The United States is part of a coalition of nations that has imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Under this pressure, the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, dropped by 40 percent earlier this month.

In a likely preview of Monday’s debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Obama and Romney’s teams argued about whether the sanctions are working and who deserves credit for spearheading their implementation.

“The president put together a strong global coalition imposing sanctions on the Iranians, including not only Europe, obviously — which has made a dramatic impact on the Iranian economy — but Russia as well,” Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said on ABC’s “This Week” that “on the issue of Iran trying to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States was isolated from the rest of the world” when Obama took office. Axelrod asserted that unified international opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon is “all because of the leadership of this president.”

International sanctions against Iran have intensified during Obama’s term, but the United Nations Security Council had already approved some sanctions before Obama took office.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the sanctions have been “a miserable failure,” noting that Iran has accelerated uranium enrichment since Obama took office.

Portman said “it’s true that we’ve started to put sanctions in place, but . . . that’s because Congress pressured the president to do it, other countries pressured us to do it.”

Sanctions against Iran include a blend of measures taken by Congress and the United Nations. The Romney campaign’s familiar charge that Obama “watered down sanctions” refers to a statement the president wrote when he signed a national defense bill that included sanctions against Iran. Obama wrote that he would treat any provisions of the bill that conflict with his constitutional authority as nonbinding.

In addition, a round of sanctions approved by the United Nations in 2010 did not include action against Iran’s central bank, but the Obama administration agreed to the softer measures because China and Russia had threatened to use their veto powers to kill the sanctions.

Portman also suggested that news of prospective talks with Iran is “another example of a national security leak from the White House.”

Republicans have accused the White House of leaking sensitive information about the president’s counterterrorism efforts — including the use of a computer virus to slow Iran’s nuclear program — for political gain.

But unlike revelations of cyber warfare, reports about bilateral discussions with Iran do not necessarily strengthen Obama’s image.

During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton, now Obama’s secretary of state, blasted Obama for saying during a debate that he would sit down with the leaders of rogue nations, including Iran.

“I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naïve,” Clinton said at the time.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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