On NBC's Meet the Press (9/9/12), Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and host David Gregory had a discussion about the failures of the Obama administration's foreign policy that included this:
ROMNEY: The president has not drawn us further away from a nuclear Iran. And in fact Iran is closer to having a weapon, closer to having nuclear capability, than when he took office. This is the greatest failure, in my opinion, of his foreign policy. He ran for office saying he was going to meet with Ahmadinejad. He was going to meet with Castro, Kim Jong Il. All the world's worst actors, without precondition, he'd meet with them in his first year.
GREGORY: President Bush said that he would stop Iran from going nuclear. So did President Obama. Neither one were able to achieve that. Correct?
ROMNEY: President Obama had a policy of engagement with Ahmadinejad. That policy has not worked and we're closer to a nuclear weapon as a result of that.
Set aside the talk about the U.S. having a "policy of engagement" with Iran–we have a policy of sanctions. The real question is what Gregory is talking about when he talks about Iran "going nuclear," and how Bush and Obama failed "to achieve that."
In this context, "going nuclear" would seem to refer to producing a nuclear weapon, which nobody claims Iran has done. Gregory has mislead viewers on this before: "Iran: Will talks push that country to give up its nuclear weapons program?" he declared a few years back (10/4/09).
There is as yet no evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. What we know now is that the country has a nuclear energy program, and some countries demand to know more about that program, based on the theory that Iran is hiding something. Perhaps they are, but no evidence to that effect exists.
But it is common for media to start the Iran conversation based on the assumption that there's a weapon being built. You could see that in Bill Keller's column in the New York Times today (9/10/12). "Negotiations aimed at preventing the dreaded Persian Bomb have resumed their desultory course," he explained to readers–before posing what I think Keller believes is a provocative question: "Can we live with a nuclear Iran?"
Keller believes his column is adding something novel to the debate over Iran:
The prevailing view now is that a nuclear Iran cannot be safely contained. On this point both President Obama and Mitt Romney agree.
Keller then goes on: "Let's assume, for starters, that Iran's theocrats are determined to acquire nuclear weapons." The rest of the column consists mostly of a "theoretical exercise" where Keller ends up opposing pre-emptive war in favor of allowing Iran to enrich uranium so long as it doesn't pursue a weapons program. Then we could "gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations."
It's a strange argument, given that Iran says that's what it's doing, and the inspectors that are supposed to monitor Iran's nuclear program are already reporting that there is no evidence any of the country's uranium is being diverted for a weapons program. It sure doesn't seem as if sanctions relief is right around the corner.
A truly novel media approach that Keller–or any other columnist–might want to try: Assume, for the sake of novelty, that Iran is not pursuing a weapons program. Then take every fact of the Iran showdown–the sanctions, the threats from various Israeli government officials that a military attack could be imminent–and try to reconcile them with the assumption that Iran is not developing the weapons that are the focus of so much controversy.
It's much more difficult to rationalize U.S. policy if one explores this "theoretical exercise." Which is likely why pundits like Keller go a different route.