WASHINGTON (AFP) — The specter of a hypothetical US military strike on Iran is emerging as a dominant foreign policy theme in a 2008 White House race already haunted by the war in Iraq.
The campaign trail is hardly the place for diplomatic nuance and candidates are facing questions they might rather avoid, about how they might deal with the Islamic Republic should nuclear diplomacy fail.
The issue has opened a new line of attack for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards, who hope to cut her opinion poll lead by convincing voters she lacks judgment.
Republicans meanwhile spar over whether Congress would have to authorize any use of force against Iranian nuclear facilities, and one candidate, Senator John McCain, warns ominously such a choice may be closer than anyone thinks.
The campaign debate comes as world powers mull new sanctions on Iran, after it flouted UN Security Council calls to suspend a uranium enrichment program it insists is aimed not at weapons, but at generating energy.
Candidates must walk a fine line, appeasing core supporters, but wary of inflammatory missteps and boxing themselves in, should they reach the White House.
"It's tricky for a candidate from either party to be precise about what they might do," said Sean Kay, professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.
"It's hard to know what the situation might be when they become president.
"Secondly, no president wants to be in a position where they have unilaterally disarmed themselves of a tool of foreign policy."
Senator Clinton's opponents are attempting to skewer her over her vote last month for a bill branding Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terror group, which critics regard as a possible pretext for a US strike on Iran.
Obama, an Illinois senator, said Friday he didn't want to give President George W. Bush "any excuse, or any opening for war."
"As we learned with the authorization of the Iraq war -- when you give this president a blank check, you can't be surprised when he cashes it," he said, linking Clinton's decision with her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.
Edwards, a former senator, also tied the two votes together even though he also voted to wage war in Iraq, though has since repudiated the decision.
"Senator Clinton and I learned two very different lessons from the Iraq war. I learned that if you give President Bush even an inch of authority, he will use it to sanction a war," Edwards said.
"Her vote opens the door for the president to attack Iran."
Clinton rejects the criticism.
"There was nothing in that resolution that gave President Bush or anyone any authority to go to war," she said Thursday in New Hampshire.
"We want leverage so if we can ever convince the Bush administration to actually negotiate, they've got some sticks to use at that table."
The Clinton campaign has also noted Obama did not vote on the Iran resolution.
Obama had his own fight over Iran this year, when Clinton branded him as "naive" and "irresponsible" after he said he would be ready to meet leaders of sworn US foes, including Iran, during his first year in office.
But campaigning in New Hampshire this week, Clinton said: "I would engage in negotiations with Iran with no conditions," prompting Obama to accuse her of changing her stance. Her campaign responded that she had meant meetings between the US government and Iran, not personal talks with the president.
Republican candidates meanwhile have vied to be seen as the most hawkish on foreign policy, accusing Iran of chasing nuclear weapons and orchestrating attacks on US soldiers in Iraq.
Both former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and McCain have warned Washington's final option may be a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, if diplomacy fails.
"We will use a military option if we have to," Giuliani told Fox News in April.
"It would not be a good thing, but it would be much more dangerous and much worse if (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) had nuclear weapons."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney last week called Ahmadinejad a "buffoon" and a "rogue" and mounted a campaign to bar him from last month's UN General Assembly.
McCain raised eyebrows in a Republican debate last week, saying that he would consult Congress before mounting a hypothetical strike on Iran, which he said is "maybe, closer to reality than we are discussing tonight."
Earlier this year, a joking McCain outraged anti-war groups singing "bomb, bomb, bomb," Iran at a campaign event to the tune of the Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann."
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »