By Stephen Collinson (AFP)
WASHINGTON — Talking tough on Iran, Republican White House hopefuls are trying to puncture President Barack Obama's national security armor in the cauldron of the 2012 election campaign.
They disdain Obama as weak towards Tehran, demand regime change and propose military attacks on Iran's subterranean nuclear program.
Ironically, the Republican assault comes as Obama aides and some independent analysts argue that US and allied pressure is actually working, as new sanctions take an unprecedented toll on the Iranian economy.
But Republicans fault Obama for his vow to engage US enemies, expressed in his own White House campaign in 2008, and say the administration has balked at imposing the "crippling" sanctions it promised.
Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney's rhetoric has been so stark that some critics worry he risks backing himself into a corner if elected president.
"If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect Mitt Romney ... they will not have a nuclear weapon," he said in November.
On Wednesday, in South Carolina, Romney slammed Obama for being too slow to support the Iranian democracy protests in 2009.
"When there were over a million people in the streets of Tehran screaming for freedom, he was silent," Romney said.
Romney's rival Newt Gingrich meanwhile wants the Iranian regime replaced within a year while Rick Santorum compared Obama to "feckless" Jimmy Carter, who saw hopes of a second term in 1980 dissolved in an Iranian hostage crisis.
But unlike Carter, Obama has forged a strong reputation as commander-in-chief, masterminding the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq.
Republicans, who traditionally brand Democrats weak on national security however, see a chance to use Iran to tarnish credentials Obama's campaign plans to use as a touchstone of his broader leadership.
"I think that Iran will resonate in the campaign," said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"As an issue, it encapsulates some of the weakness of the Obama administration's broader foreign policy -- what many see as a naive willingness to engage American adversaries while showing very little result."
Obama aides however argue that his 2009 offer of "a new beginning" through engagement with Iran, though spurned, united the world around his subsequent attempts to isolate and punish Tehran over its nuclear program.
For now, the White House is choosing not to engage the Republican attacks.
But senior officials argue Obama built the most effective sanctions yet on Iran, and say Tehran is more isolated than it has been for many years, with its ally Syria in turmoil and its economy grinding to a halt.
"We have sanctions that are unprecedented, that are having a demonstrable effect on the Iranian economy," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"Iran is isolated in a way that it's never been, and the pressure on Iran is significant and increasing."
Officials though will not discuss what is presumed to be a campaign of cyber sabotage and covert targeting of Iranian nuclear scientists often attributed to Western or Israeli intelligence agencies.
Washington did say however it had nothing to do with the latest killing of an Iranian scientist on Wednesday.
Iran's impact on November's election is not easy to gauge, given that Obama and his Republican foe will duel primarily over the state of the economy after the worst slowdown since the Great Depression.
But as the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 showed, and the aftermath of the Iraq war underlined in 2004, foreign policy can weigh on the minds of voters.
If Iran-US tensions in the oil corridor of the Strait of Hormuz spill over into an "October surprise" conflict, voters would likely coalesce around Obama as commander-in-chief -- if he shows strong leadership.
But provocations by Iran could also leave Obama politically vulnerable, as a likely spike in oil prices could slow the US recovery, hurt jobs growth and inflict pain at the gasoline pump for Americans.
And a skirmish with Iran could undermine Obama's narrative that the "tide of war is receding" as his strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan brings American troops home.
But Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that absent a major crisis, the Islamic Republic would not toy with voters' minds.
"As long as Iran doesn't get the bomb, and is not bombed, before November 2012, I don't think it will be a decisive campaign issue," he said.
"Despite the fact that the Republicans have used Iran policy as a means to attack President Obama, I think most Americans when they get up in the morning worry primarily about America, not Iran."
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