JERUSALEM — In a 6,000-mile reach for evangelical and Jewish voters in the presidential election, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney said Sunday that the U.S. should "employ any and all measures" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, arguing that it is the nation's most pressing national security issue.
With the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem as a backdrop, Mr. Romney said that "we recognize Israel's right to defend itself," but stopped short of reiterating the words of a foreign policy aide who told reporters that the Republican would "respect" a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
"We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability," Mr. Romney said in a speech in which he focused on the shared interests of the U.S. and Israel.
He said stopping such a development is "a solemn duty and a moral imperative."
"We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you," he said.
The speech at the Jerusalem Foundation was seen as the centerpiece of a weeklong overseas tour that continues Monday with a fundraiser at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, after which he will travel to Poland to meet with Prime Minister Donald Tusk and former President Lech Walesa and visit a World War II memorial.
The trip has given Mr. Romney a chance to not only raise additional money from expatriate Americans, but also bolster his foreign policy credentials and score points with evangelicals and conservative Jews in key swing states such as Florida, which could make or break his presidential dream.
The three-nation swing, however, got off on the wrong foot last week in Britain after the Republican touted his meeting with the head of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency — a no-no in British circles — and became a punching bag for British leaders and the press after he questioned whether London officials were ready to host the Summer Olympics.
Mr. Romney, though, received a warm welcome from the crowd gathered to hear him speak at the Jerusalem Foundation on Sunday, including many big campaign donors who flew in from the United States for the speech.
He also was showered with cheers when he declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel — comments echoing the claims of the Israeli government, but putting him at odds with Palestinians who also claim right to the city as the capital of a future independent state.
Mr. Romney weighed further into the thorny thicket during an interview with CNN by saying that the United States, in consultation with the Israeli government, should move its embassy, which is now in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem.
"I think it's long been the policy to ultimately have our embassy in the nation's capital of Jerusalem," he said. "The decision to actually make the move is one, if I were president, I would want to take in consultation with the leadership of the [Israeli] government."
Since the passage of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which says the U.S. should move its embassy to Jerusalem, every U.S. president has suspended on national security grounds, as the law allows, a decision to make good on the "required" move.
But Mr. Romney seemed to say he would not do that.
When CNN host Wolf Blitzer pointed out to him that "every Israeli government has always asked every U.S. government to recognize Jerusalem as the capital and to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," Mr. Romney responded: "Well, that would make the decision easy, but I'd still want to have that communication with the government leaders."
Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, said Mr. Romney's description of Jerusalem is "unacceptable, and we completely reject it."
"The U.S. election campaign should never be at the expense of the Palestinians," he said. "Romney is rewarding occupation, settlement and extremism in the region with such declarations."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, appeared to have launched a pre-emptive campaign strike of its own ahead of Mr. Romney's visit in the form of a front-page story that appeared Saturday in the daily Ha'aretz that claimed U.S. national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon had recently briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on details of U.S. contingency plans for any attack on Iran.
Citing "a senior American official," the newspaper report said that Mr. Donilon made clear that Washington was making serious preparations for a strike if military action is deemed necessary.
A Netanyahu spokesman vigorously denied that Mr. Donilon revealed operational plans for attacking Iran, and Mr. Donilon's office declined to comment on the private meeting.
While the Obama administration hasn't ruled out the military option, the president has relied on economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts in an attempt to discourage Iran from building a nuclear bomb, prompting critics to label him as being "soft" on Iran.
Mr. Netanyahu has had a tense relationship with Mr. Obama over the past few years, principally over Jewish settlements, which the Democrat initially made a focal point of his Middle East diplomacy.
The Israeli leader has ''lectured" Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, in the presence of the media, on the suffering of the Jews and Israel's security perils. Mr. Obama once famously broke off a deadlocked meeting with him in the White House by saying he was going upstairs to have dinner with his family. He suggested that Mr. Netanyahu and his aides hang around downstairs and "let me know" if they come up with a more acceptable position. They didn't.
Mr. Romney, on the other hand, has attempted to showcase an acquaintance with "my friend Bibi" going back to the 1970s when they were both consultants at the Boston Consulting Group, though Mr. Netanyahu has downplayed the relationship as distant.
"We didn't know each other that well," he told Time magazine in May. "He was the whiz kid. I was just in the back of the room."
Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday used Mr. Romney's well-choreographed visit to argue in a news conference that diplomacy and economic sanctions on Iran have failed.
"All the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota," he said. "We need a strong and credible military threat coupled with sanctions in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
In one of his most pointed hints yet of an Israeli strike, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran "would be many times more complex, dangerous and costly, both in terms of human life and resources, than a pre-emptive strike."
Dan Senor, a Romney foreign policy aide, touched on the subject ahead of Mr. Romney's speech by telling reporters that the former governor would support a unilateral strike if all economic and diplomatic options are exhausted.
"If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision," Mr. Senor said.
Asked during an appearance on CBS News whether that means he would give Israel the "green light" to bomb Iran, Mr. Romney ducked the question by saying, "I respect the right of Israel to defend itself and we stand with Israel."
Mr. Romney explained that he didn't want to dive any deeper into the issue because he didn't want to "create new foreign policy for my country or in anyway distance myself" from current American foreign policy.
"Are there differences between [Mr. Obama and me]? Of course," he said. "But being on foreign soil, particularly being here in Israel, this isn't the right time for me to draft those out."
Mr. Romney, however, did distance himself from the Obama administration in his speech here Sunday by saying that over the past five years the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has "only become worse."
"Now as then, the regime's claims that it seeks to enrich nuclear material for peaceful purposes are belied by years of malign deceptions," he said. "Now, as then, the conduct of Iran's leaders gives us no reason to trust them with nuclear material. But today, the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability.
• Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.