WASHINGTON U.S. presidential candidates agree Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons but at this point in the 2008 campaign, their prescriptions for preventing such an outcome are vague.
Dealing with Iran -- its nuclear ambitions, its involvement in Iraq and its opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts -- commands a lot of President George W. Bush's attention.
But he is not likely to resolve the conflicts before leaving office in January 2009, so Iran is expected to be among the more difficult foreign policy challenges inherited by his successor, U.S. officials and experts say.
"Allowing Iran, a radical theocracy that supports terrorism and openly threatens its neighbors, to acquire nuclear weapons is a risk we cannot take," Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said in a letter to the Israel Project, a pro-Israel group that educates the public about Israel and advocates an end to investment in Iran.
Obama's tough line on Iran was largely echoed in other letters from seven other candidates, including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, both Democrats.
Two Republican candidates -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas -- stressed, as Bush has done, that the military option must remain on the table.
All were asked by the Israel Project to discuss their views and endorse a petition signed on-line by more than 75,000 people telling the United Nations Security Council "Iran must be stopped now -- before it develops a nuclear bomb."
Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, has defied a Security Council demand to halt its uranium enrichment program, resulting in two sets of sanctions. A third sanctions resolution is under consideration.
Only three candidates -- Obama, Brownback and Romney -- at this point supported the project's effort to persuade state pension funds and others to withdraw investments from companies invested in Iran's oil and gas industry.
Obama praised Florida, Illinois and California for taking the lead on divestment and said he would work to pass this year a new law he is sponsoring to make divestment easier.
Romney outlined a five-point strategy including tightening sanctions, denying Iran access to the international financial system and indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "incitement to genocide" against Israel.
The United States should "isolate Iran diplomatically" but also "keep communication channels open," Romney advised.
Edwards offered to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders who meet criteria like recognition of Israel, but also promised "new" targeted sanctions for U.S. and foreign companies against Tehran, which he did not define.
He also proposed enticing Iran into compliance with U.N. demands through incentives like offering increased refinery capacity, modification of the U.S. trade embargo, membership in multinational organizations and creation of a fuel bank.
Clinton urged enforcement of "meaningful, tough economic sanctions" on Iran and noted her sponsorship of legislation that would prevent international corporations from evading sanctions through foreign subsidiaries.
During a televised debate on Monday, Obama stressed the need to engage the leaders of Iran, North Korea and other states Bush has kept at arms' length. He said he would meet them without preconditions during his first year as president.
Clinton promised to pursue diplomacy vigorously but rejected meeting these leaders until the way had been cleared by high-level envoys. "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse," she said. Edwards endorsed her comments.
In the Israel Project responses, another Democrat, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, said U.S. sanctions are not enough, so the international community must enforce U.N. sanctions, including a resolution calling for disarming Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group Washington says is armed and financed by Iran.
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions "demands urgent and decisive action," but gave no details. Neither did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who called Iran an "unacceptable threat" and urged it to halt enrichment and support for terrorism.