WASHINGTON (AFP) — Republican White House candidates pounded Iran Tuesday, with Rudolph Giuliani warning of a military strike to deprive it of a nuclear bomb, and a top rival lashing "terror masters" in Tehran.
The candidates talked tough before the receptive audience of the Republican Jewish Coalition, fleshing out already hawkish stands on the Iran, emerging as a dominant foreign policy issue in the 2008 campaign.
Giuliani, running on his legacy as New York's mayor after the September 11 attacks in 2001, sharpened his rhetoric as the campaign raced towards first party nominating contests in less than 90 days.
The date of the first of those contests, the fabled Iowa caucuses was expected to be set by Republicans in the state later Tuesday for January 3, in the earliest start ever to a US electoral contest.
Giuliani said every new American president prayed to avoid war, but accused Tehran of backing attacks on US troops in Iraq, and ruled out the notion of America learning to live with a nuclear Iran.
"We have seen what Iran will do with ordinary weapons," Giuliani told a forum of presidential candidates organized by the coalition.
"If I am president of the United States, I guarantee you, we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they are not going to get a nuclear weapon."
"The military option is not off the table. If America is clear that we will exercise the military option, the chances that we will have to do it decline."
Giuliani, who leads national Republican polls, said there was no doubt Iran was building nuclear weapons -- a charge Tehran denies, saying its effort is designed to meet energy needs.
Fred Thompson, the former actor and senator who jumped into the race last month, hit out at Iran and Syria, a tactic popular with the hawkish base of core Republican voters candidates are trying to woo.
"The terror masters in Tehran and Damascus make only the most minor distinction between America and Israel," Thompson said.
"They say America is the 'Great Satan' and Israel is the 'Little Satan' and both must be destroyed.
"The US must make it clear that we will not allow Iran to be a nuclear threat," Thompson said, calling for greater steps to get rid of the "hated regime" in Tehran.
Attacking Iran is good politics for Republican candidates, allowing them to pose as robust on national security, paper over differences with the party's social conservative wing, and detract attention from the issue of what to do about Iraq.
Hawkish rhetoric is part of every US election campaign, though it is not always followed up with action, once the victorious candidate faces the reality of conducting foreign policy in a difficult world.
Giuliani also used the issue of Iran to hammer another rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
At a debate on October 9, Romney, asked whether he would seek authorization from Congress before launching a military strike against Iran, replied: "You sit down with your attorneys and they tell you what you have to do."
Giuliani compared the moment to when he threw late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of a United Nations concert in New York.
"I didn't call for a team of lawyers, to tell me, 'on the one hand we can throw him out, but on the other, maybe we can partially throw him out'".
"I just made a decision. I led."
Romney joined other Republicans Tuesday in accusing Democratic 2008 candidates, particularly front-runner Hillary Clinton and her chief rival Barack Obama, of weakness on Iran.
"It is time for Democrats to break their silence and answer this question -- will you act to stop a nuclear Iran? Let me assure you I will," he said.
On Monday, Clinton said in a new foreign policy essay that the United States should offer Tehran a calibrated package of incentives for it to renounce nuclear development, reject terrorism and back Middle East peace moves.
But she and her aides clearly also stated that she would not take the military option off the table if negotiations failed.
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