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Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has been a top foreign policy priority for successive U.S. Democratic and Republican administrations. President Barack Obama has relied largely on expanding sanctions to pressure the Iranian regime. Several GOP candidates also call for economic measures against Iran, but there is disagreement among them on whether Washington should use military action to deter Iran's nuclear program.
President Obama entered the White House pledging to open dialogue with Tehran without preconditions. In March 2009, in a Nowruz message, he told Iran's leaders his administration sought "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." Following the disputed Iranian presidential election in June 2009, Obama opted for a low-key response in the early days. But the Iranian government's violent crackdown on opposition supporters made diplomacy difficult, even as the Obama administration attempted to balance outreach with defense of human rights.
On the nuclear program, the administration brokered a deal backed by the IAEA that would see the international community provide fuel to Tehran's research reactor while implementing safeguards. While Iran agreed initially, it later withdrew support.
Tehran's continued violence against opposition supporters and new reports outlining Iran's enrichment-related activities–including that it was building a secret uranium- enrichment facility near Qom–hardened Obama's stance on Iran by 2010. Since then, Obama has worked to isolate Iran by imposing new sanctions and toughening existing ones against the regime, both unilaterally and through the United Nations. Some analysts say the administration has also used covert actions to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, such as the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack, although there has been no official confirmation.
In November 2011, following a report by the IAEA that included strong indications of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the administration upped efforts to squeeze the regime. For the first time, U.S. sanctions targeted Iran's petrochemical sector, and the entire banking sector–including the Central Bank of Iran. It fell short of sanctioning the bank. The Obama administration has said a military option is on the table, but stressed it would focus on a diplomatic approach to press Iran.
Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has called for a naval blockade of Iranian ports, increased intelligence operations against Iran and "crushing economic sanctions." Although she has not committed herself to going to war against Iran over its nuclear program, she has said, "The Pentagon should prepare a war plan, as a last resort, should all else fail in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons." She has spoken against Iran's influence in the region and has often referred to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "mad man."
In 2007, she told the St. Cloud Times that Iran had a plan to divide Iraq and control half of the country and set it up as a "a terrorist safe haven zone."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls for disrupting Iran's nuclear program through covert action, including "taking out their scientists" and cyberwarfare. He advocates the use of military force as a last resort: "If we get to a point where the military believes that they are truly on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon, I would be prepared to use military force."
Gingrich has also called for regime change in Iran (TheHill); if he became president he says he would set up a fund to support dissident groups, repeal restrictions on U.S. spies, cut off Iran's gasoline supply, and "basically wage economic warfare against them until the regime broke."
As former U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman pressed China to support strong U.S. sanctions against Iran, but as GOP candidate he has argued that sanctions will not prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan in November 2011, Huntsman said sanctions "aren't going to have much of an impact" and instead suggested that military action might be the only way to deter Iran.
In his October foreign policy speech (Politico) he expressed his willingness to use military force against Iran. "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that," he said.
Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) has spoken against using a military option to counter threats posed by Iran. He cautioned against any president taking military action without consent of Congress. He says presidents must abide by the Constitution in such matters. " You go to the Congress and find out if our national security is threatened," he said during a GOP debate on November 12.
Paul cautioned against warmongering on Iran. "I'm afraid what's going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq," he added during the debate.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has called for Washington to sanction Iran's central bank to deter Tehran from pursuing nuclear capability.
On the question of a preemptive military strike, Perry told ABC's Christiane Amanpour in November 2011 that he would not take the military option off the table to thwart Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. He said the United States has only bad options when dealing with Iran.
Like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Perry also urges regime change in Iran and argues that Obama missed an opportunity to oust the Iranian regime in 2009, when authorities confronted their greatest mass protests since the 1979 revolution. He says the United States should be "actively involved" in removing the regime from power and recommends "diplomatic, and economic, and overt, covert, or even civic opportunities" to do so.
Mitt Romney has said that it is "unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon" and he would apply a range of measures–economic, diplomatic, and ultimately military, to deter Tehran. "If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon," he said during a November GOP debate. "If you'd like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon."
He has called for imposing additional economic sanctions and working with the insurgents to encourage regime change in the country. During a primary debate, he said Obama should have spoken out during the mass protests of 2009 and told protesters, "America is with you." He also called for covert support for dissidents.
Former senator Rick Santorum says the United States should be working with Israel to preemptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities, noting the success of Israeli strikes to disrupt facilities in Iraq and Syria. He has also suggested, like Cain and Romney, tougher sanctions against Iran and greater support for pro-democracy groups in the country.
In November 2011, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Santorum called Iran's nuclear scientists "enemy combatants" similar to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and, therefore, potential targets for assassination.
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