U.S. foreign policy has not been the No.1 focus of the presidential campaign. But one nation often invokes sharp comment from the candidates: Iran.
Iran's nuclear program and its involvement in Iraq present formidable foreign policy challenges for any U.S. president, current or future. But the responses of the candidates in the campaign so far have not always seemed carefully considered.
Iran had not generated much public comment from the candidates until the morning of the Pennsylvania primary in April, when Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was asked on ABC's Good Morning America what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.
We will attack them, Clinton said, and I want the Iranians to understand that.
Clinton Espouses Policy of Deterrence
"It does mean that they have to look very carefully at their society," she said. "Because whatever stage of development they might be in their nuclear weapons program in the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."
It was an unusually blunt and threatening statement, certainly meant to display Clinton's toughness and to appeal to supporters of Israel. Clinton was asked about it later that day and tried to explain that it was not meant to be as bellicose as it sounded.
"It's a question not of what might be on or off the table, concerning a tactical or strategic decision, but an effort on my part to get back to what worked during the Cold War, which was deterrence," Clinton said.
"Iran is feeling quite powerful. They have been empowered by the actions of the last seven years. And they must know that there are lines that the world will not let them cross," she said.
Obama: No Nuclear Weapons for Iran, Period
Clinton's use of the word "obliterate" overshadowed her more nuanced explanation involving deterrence. Her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, picked up on it immediately and continues to criticize her for it, most recently on NBC's Meet the Press.
"It's not the language that we need right now, and I think it's language that's reflective of George Bush," Obama said.
"We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk. In the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran," he said.
Obama said he would respond forcefully to an Iranian attack on Israel or any American ally, but he challenged the hypothetical question, saying it presupposes a failure of U.S. policy that a president ought to have something to say about.
"We shouldn't allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, period. I have consistently said that I will do everything in my power to prevent them from having it, and I have not ruled out military force as an option," Obama said.
McCain Not Eager to Use Military Force Against Iran
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, has created his own controversy on Iran. Last year, speaking to a group of veterans, he was asked when the U.S. was going to send an airmail message to Iran.
McCain responded with a musical reference, singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' song "Barbara Ann."
Since then McCain has responded to criticism of his performance with a dismissive, "It was a joke. Get a life."
In reality, McCain has suggested he is not eager to use military force against Iran.
"There's only one thing worse than military action against Iran, and that is Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. But there [are] a lot of things we can do that we haven't done that I think could have some beneficial effect," McCain said, advocating what he calls "meaningful economic sanctions."
Candidates' Actual Policies More Complex than Sound Bites
While their public comments on Iran have lacked complexity, the three candidates do have views that are more nuanced. Recently, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security asked each campaign how it views uranium enrichment in Iran and what should be done about it. The three campaigns responded with fairly detailed answers.
McCain said that Iran must permanently abandon uranium enrichment, which goes beyond the demands of recent U.N. Security Council resolutions, says Jacqueline Shire, who helped fashion the questions.
"McCain gave a ... direct answer, saying there's no circumstance under which the international community can be confident that uranium-enrichment activity in Iran is for peaceful purposes," Shire says.
McCain does advocate a plan to provide Iran with nuclear fuel for its civilian nuclear power program, but that fuel would be produced in Russia.
Obama offers a similar plan overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the context of a global moratorium on all new uranium enrichment activities.
In contrast to President Bush, both Obama and Clinton favor direct talks with Iran without insisting that Iran suspend uranium enrichment first, Shire says.
"[Clinton] and Obama ... hew closely to the approach that diplomacy is best — in Clinton's case, carrots and sticks; in Obama's case, thinking maybe a little more broadly about bringing the international community into the solution," she says.
Clinton also has advocated extending a U.S. nuclear umbrella to friends of the U.S. in the Middle East if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons.
For its part, Iran insists it is not seeking nuclear weapons. It has ignored U.N. Security Council sanctions and quite publicly continues to expand its uranium-enrichment program.