These days, Republicans are seizing every opportunity to hammer President Obama for both high gas prices and his Iran policy.
Mitt Romney recently criticized him, arguing that, when it came to Iran, Obama "not only dawdled in imposing crippling sanctions, he's opposed them."
Rick Santorum called Obama's Iran policy a "colossal failure," and blamed high gas prices on a "radical environmental movement in this country" that has failed to make America "energy independent" from the Middle East.
While it's reasonable to disagree with his administration's domestic energy policies, Republican candidates should acknowledge the obvious trade-off on Iran: Such sanctions would drive gas prices up by reducing the global oil supply. (Even Saudi Arabia's spare production capacity is not enough to replace all of Iran's daily sales of 2.2 million barrels without causing a major price spike.)
Republican candidates have boxed Obama in. Their dual line of attack might be smart politics, but it's not smart policy. Either gas prices go down or Obama imposes suffocating sanctions on Iranian oil exports. They can't have it both ways.
The only way to avoid that trap is to extend the carefully crafted oil sanctions policy that Congress passed in December with overwhelming bipartisan support — a policy which the administration is now enthusiastically implementing after initially rejecting it.
If the Republican candidates want to exert their influence to stop Iran's drive toward a nuclear weapon, and keep oil-market anxiety to a minimum, they'll need to do the unthinkable in an election season: support Obama by quietly doubling down on the administration's current oil-market sanctions while continuing to ask tough questions about his broader Iran policy.
Oil-market sanctions against Iran are risky. World oil prices are up by 15 percent in 2012 due to tight supplies and growing demand, and $5 gas on Election Day is a real possibility that could threaten the nascent economic recovery.
But oil markets are also skittish that Obama might grow too aggressive in enforcing oil sanctions, or that Israel will lose patience with sanctions and attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Either scenario could send oil prices skyrocketing.
In response, the Obama administration has tried to perform a delicate balancing act: to dramatically reduce Iran's oil revenues while trying to reassure anxious markets that it will still let some Iranian crude flow.
On Tuesday, the administration took an important step toward implementing that idea. It granted Japan an exception to American sanctions based on evidence that Tokyo had reduced its Iranian crude purchases by about 20 percent since 2011. (It also exempted 10 European countries, which will soon be subject to an oil embargo imposed by the European Union.) At the same time, the administration has made clear that it will only let other countries buy Iranian oil if they "significantly reduce" their overall purchases.
For the first time since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Iranian oil revenues are seriously threatened. According to the Department of Energy, Iran's crude oil sales account for 80 percent of its hard-currency export earnings and 50 percent of its overall government budget. Existing sanctions on Iran have already caused the black-market value of the Iranian rial to plummet by more than 50 percent in a matter of months.
The International Energy Agency projects that, when the European embargo on Iranian oil goes into effect in July, Iran's oil sales could drop by 50 percent, to levels not seen since the Iran-Iraq war. That would certainly get the attention of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
And Republicans can push President Obama further. They should call on him to take a bold step and declare the entire Iranian energy sector a "zone of primary proliferation concern," with which no legitimate international firm should do business.
There is a precedent: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, passed in 2010 with the support of Russia and China, explicitly notes a "potential connection" between Iranian oil and gas revenues and "the funding of its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities."
In 2011, the Obama administration declared Iran's entire financial sector a money-laundering threat, laying the groundwork for sanctions against Iran's central bank.
Blacklisting Iran's entire energy sector would reduce the number of companies willing to trade in Iranian oil and natural gas, thus forcing Iran to reduce its prices for whatever it can still sell.
Republicans may not like it, but President Obama should also grant China a formal exception to the sanctions, allowing it to buy as much Iranian oil as it wants so long as it continues to extract major price discounts, which reportedly are now around $20 per barrel. Chinese oil traders could be counted on to push ruthlessly for these discounts. That's about as responsible a stakeholder as Beijing will ever be when it comes to sanctioning Iran.
This approach would calm markets by permitting some Iranian oil to flow, while turning the rest into a distressed asset. It's a win-win scenario; it doesn't reduce the amount of oil available on world markets but it denies Iran's leaders the revenue they badly need.
To calm nervous allies, America should also grant an exemption from sanctions to refineries, shippers and traders from countries that the administration has permitted to keep buying Iranian oil. (That exemption is currently only granted to those countries' financial institutions.)
If aggressively enforced, these sanctions would discourage most foreign companies from investing in Iran's energy sector, or having any other dealings with Iranian energy companies, further shrinking Iranian oil and natural gas production and providing the remaining foreign companies with greater leverage to extract major price concessions from Tehran.
This policy should attract significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate. And if Obama pursues it, Congress will likely be forced to have his back since they have already demanded tougher sanctions.
We are fast approaching a point when sanctions will no longer be able to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. As tempting as it may be, Republican candidates should set aside the opportunity to score quick political points and support the president in taking a bold step on sanctions that could destroy Iran's oil wealth. And if Ayatollah Khamenei still refuses to compromise, Republicans and Democrats may find themselves more united in moving beyond sanctions and pursuing a military option.