Under pressure from Israel and Republicans to take stronger action against Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama told an influential pro-Israel lobby Sunday that there is “there is too much loose talk of war” and urged patience to let economic sanctions work.
“For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster,” Mr. Obama said at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington. “Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.”
While there is growing speculation that Israel will take unilateral military action against Iranian facilities, Mr. Obama said he prefers for the moment to heed the advice of former President Theodore Roosevelt: Speak softly, but carry a big stick.
“I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world,” Mr. Obama said. “Rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve and that our coordination with Israel will continue.”
His comments came a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Mr. Obama at the White House, with the question of Iran high on their agenda. Mr. Netanyahu also will address the AIPAC conference on Monday. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are expected to address the conference later in the week.
The Israeli news service Haaretz reported that Mr. Netanyahu wants to leverage the AIPAC conference to gain commitments that the Obama administration will support an attack on Iran’s facilities.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, who is House Armed Services Committee chairman, spoke on C-SPAN earlier in the day about the possibility of a joint operation.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to take care of whatever needs to be done,” Mr. McKeon said.
Moments before Mr. Obama spoke Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres told the AIPAC crowd that Israel would defend itself against Iran’s threat, calling the Iranian regime “evil.” Mr. Peres said there is “no space between” Israel and the U.S. when it comes to a policy towards Iran.
“President Obama made it clear that the United States of America will never permit Iran to become nuclear,” Mr. Peres said. “He made it clear that containment is not a viable policy. As the president stated, all options are on the table. The United States and Israel share the same goal — to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Our message is clear. Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon.”
In his most extensive comments yet on the subject, Mr. Obama said Iran, a sponsor of terrorism that has vowed to destroy Israel, must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. But he said the U.S. and Israel “both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program.”
“I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy — backed by pressure — to succeed,” Mr. Obama said. “Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July — thanks to our diplomatic coordination — a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold. Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision.”
Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, said the president is playing the public “for fools.”
“You’ve had no evidence that the president is prepared to take steps to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Mr. Gingrich said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They talk and the Iranians build. They talk and the Iranians build. You have every evidence that this administration is desperately trying to get the Israelis not to pre-empt, and, frankly, an Israeli prime minister faced with the threat of nuclear arms in Iran is going to pre-empt.”
Naftali Bennett, a former chief of staff to Mr. Netanyahu, said that waiting for new sanctions from the United Nations will hamper Israel’s ability to take effective action.
“What we need now is not crippling sanctions; we need paralyzing sanctions that will bring Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse,” Mr. Bennett told Fox News. “We are nowhere near that right now.”
Mr. Obama, who is campaigning for re-election on his kept promises to end the war in Iraq and wind down the war in Afghanistan, emphasized that he would use military force only as a last resort.
“I have sent men and women into harm’s way,” Mr. Obama said. “I have seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who have come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home.
“For this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it,” he added. “And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country. We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically.”
Even as he pushed back against pressure to join Israel in military action, Mr. Obama defended his administration against what he called election-year partisan attacks that he is soft on Israel’s security.
“If, during this political season you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Mr. Obama said. “My administration’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unprecedented. Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every year.”
He said the U.S.-Israel relationship “is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. America’s national security is too important. Israel’s security is too important.”
The president said Iran’s leaders should know that he “would not hesitate to use force” if necessary.
“Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs,” Mr. Obama said.
“I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Obama said.
Even as Mr. Obama called for lowering the rhetoric on military action, he seemed to encourage some in the audience by reminding them that Israel has the power to act unilaterally against Iran.
“Make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge, because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Mr. Obama said.
Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was pleased that Mr. Obama “laid out a good foundation for progress” in the Middle East.
“I agree with his strong commitment to our alliance with Israel, the right for Israel to defend itself, continuation of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and our shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability,” Mr. Corker said.