In the 1950s, Iran began developing a nuclear power program, originally with the support of the United States. Today however, 23 years after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Islamic Republic, the United Nations and many governments, including the United States, have expressed  concern that Iranian leaders may actually be developing a nuclear bomb. The Iranian government claims that its nuclear program is simply for civilian energy purposes, has ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation  Treaty,  and has technically  submitted  to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections (conducted by an external body). Still, widespread concern that Iran will eventually create a bomb has turned U.S. foreign policy toward Iran into a key issue that the presidential candidates must address in their campaigns.

One of the issues to consider is the United States’ relationship with Israel. Iranian officials have publicly declared that they do not believe Israel has a right to exist. Anything short of what Israel sees as the full cooperation of the United States to rebuff Iran’s attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon potentially undermines a historically strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Governor Mitt Romney has repeatedly accused President Barack Obama of being soft on Iran, but Mr. Obama declared at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2012 that he “will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests,” ensuring those at the conference that a military strike will always be an option.

A nuclear Iran might also negatively influence the prospects for peace in the Middle East. It would likely spark and accelerate a regional arms race, if not a regional race to obtain the bomb itself. This stirring of Middle East tensions would likely undermine a large part of the United States’ previous work in stabilizing the region. If Mr. Obama wants to continue to claim progress in the Middle East, he must consider what a nuclear Iran would imply with regard to regional stability. Mr. Romney has capitalized on this fear among Americans of a nuclear Iran, arguing that disaster could strike beyond just the Middle East and that Iranian use of the bomb would globalize the conflict. Furthermore, Mr. Romney can point to the continuing instability in the Middle East as a failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

A final issue for consideration is how the future president can effectively combat Iran with (or without) international cooperation. Currently, the United States is acting largely in cooperation with a number of other countries by imposing round after round of economic sanctions — trade penalties meant to influence the target country’s policies — against Iran. However, these sanctions are only effective if Iran truly cannot find other trading partners.  If nations with large economies do not participate in the sanctions, Iran can simply circumvent sanctions by finding a willing trade partner. Mitt Romney has made it very clear that he is willing to act independently of other countries, and when asked how he would check Iran’s nuclear program, he responded, “Until Iran ceases its nuclear bomb program, I will press for ever- tightening sanctions, acting with other countries if we can, but alone if we must . . . I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option.” President Obama, however, has made it a key point of his agenda to keep engagement open as an option and at least attempt to incorporate other countries in his policies.

Moving forward, the future president will have to adopt a firm stance regarding Iran. The current policy is comprised of a number of different sanctions imposed on the country, with the United Nations, the European Union, and individual nations  acting  both  independently  and  together  against Iran. Although it is difficult to say how effective sanctions have been, they have made it comparatively more difficult for the Iranian government to obtain materials necessary for a weapons  program.  Though  Iranian  leaders’  current intentions remain unclear, the hope is that in the long run, the sanctions will be harmful enough to discourage and deter them from further pursuing their nuclear weapons program. Many supporters of Israel publicly advocate for a military option, pointing to the continuing Iranian nuclear ambitions as evidence that sanctions have failed. Both presidential candidates will have to consider how seriously they take the possibility of a military strike beyond simply saying that it is an option that they are willing to pursue given the appropriate circumstances.

Despite the differences between President Obama and Governor Romney, their public stances regarding Iran may not actually be as divergent as some people portray them to be: both of them have said that they are willing to consider a military option, that they support strengthened sanctions, and that they must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama began his presidency by pledging a policy of “engagement” that included a “new emphasis on respect,” but he has clearly started to discuss other possibilities beyond just negotiating with Iran. Mr. Obama does not want to risk a nuclear Iran, which will make him look soft on terrorism, whereas Mr. Romney must caution against looking like an American war hawk who will exacerbate tensions.

-This article was written by Diana Li and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.