What exactly is Mitt Romney’s position on Iran – and what does it tell us about his general approach to foreign policy?

Romney said something astonishing on Face the Nation yesterday (my emphasis) that hasn’t gotten enough attention:

I can assure you if I’m President, the Iranians will have no question but that I would be willing to take military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world…I understand that some in the Senate, for instance, have written letters to the President indicating you should know that — that a — a containment strategy is unacceptable. We cannot survive a — a course of action which would include a nuclear Iran, and we must be willing to take any and all action, they must all — all those actions must be on the table.

Now, that’s pretty amazing. The United States could survive forty years of Cold War with a nuclear Soviet Union, and even now survives a nuclear China and, for that matter, a nuclear North Korea, but it couldn’t survive a nuclear Iran?

Of course, if what’s at stake is survival, then containment certainly is unacceptable, and military action is called for regardless of how hazardous and (self-) destructive it’s likely to be. If, however, that’s a bunch of hogwash and a nuclear Iran would be bad for the United States but would not lead inevitably to its demise, then policy-making is a lot more tricky, with a variety of interests and risks to be balanced.

Which raises two broader points. One is that there really does seem to be a divide within the Republican Party between a more cautious and traditional foreign policy approach, and the kind of of bellicose and grandiose national security thinking that still, apparently, sees the Iraq War as a great success. Which side is Romney with? That’s a good question for the next reporter who gets a chance to sit down with him.

And the second point: we’re talking here about a one-term governor who has no particular foreign policy or national security credentials at all. Romney hasn’t been particularly challenged on that, perhaps because he’s certainly not a Herman Cain-level clown. But so far, he’s managed to keep his foreign policy positions vague, mostly confining himself to hawkish slogans and criticisms of a mythical Barack Obama (and, sometimes, as in his “No Apology” book title, both!). Will he be able to keep it up throughout the campaign?

For more, see Dan Larison and Andrew Sullivan.