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Foreign Policy Cred Under Spotlight At Final Debate


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Late yesterday, the New York Times published a story saying the U.S. and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks about Tehran's nuclear program. The Times says Iran consented to talks, but only after the U.S. election. A White House official denies that report and says the U.S. continues to work with other world powers to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions. Iran will figure prominently in the final presidential debate Monday night. Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News says he'll also raise questions about the Middle East, Afghanistan and China. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have been on hold for months and in the meantime, there has been a lot of talk about where the U.S. should set its red lines.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: A red line should be drawn right here.

KELEMEN: That's Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who drew his red line, literally, on a cartoonish picture of a bomb as he addressed the U.N. last month. Monday's debate moderator Bob Schieffer says he'll be asking the U.S. presidential candidates about the Israeli and U.S. red lines. Both men have said their goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and both say the military option is the last resort. But Governor Romney has tried to paint the Obama administration as weak in the region and accuses the White House of distancing itself from Israel.

MITT ROMNEY: The president explicitly stated that his goal was to put daylight between the United States and Israel. And he's succeeded. This is a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and embolden our mutual adversaries, especially Iran.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration says there is no daylight between the U.S. and Israel over Iran. And in a statement last night denying a report of a one on one dialogue in the works, a White House official said the onus is on Iran to come in line with its obligations or it will face more sanctions and pressure. Another foreign policy issue that has been hotly debate this campaign was last month's attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya. President Obama tried to take politics out of this, saying in the last debate that he takes responsibility for security failures in Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And the suggestion that anybody on my team - whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. ambassador - anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do.

KELEMEN: Republican Mitt Romney talks about Libya as just one sign that, in his words, President Obama's foreign policy is unraveling.

ROMNEY: And this calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: Foreign policy experts, including Harvard's Graham Allison, are hoping that in Monday night's debate voters will get more than just bumper sticker lines.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Does this mean you are actually more likely or less likely to attack Iran, or you are more likely or less likely to take troops out of Afghanistan faster, or you are more likely or less likely to do something in Syria?

KELEMEN: Allison commissioned a poll of voters in two swing states - Ohio and Florida - and found that while the economy is still the top issue, voters are interested in hearing about Iran and terrorism, and they are feeling pessimistic about the uprisings in the Arab world. The rise of China is another issue on the minds of voters, and on Monday night's debate schedule. Governor Romney says he would label China a currency manipulator on day one; President Obama touts his record of challenging Chinese trade practices in the World Trade Organization. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.