WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and the Republican presidential hopefuls clashed Tuesday over how to address Iran's nuclear program. The GOP contenders accused Obama of weakness, while Obama blasted back that presidents don't launch wars lightly.
The debate over an Iran strategy occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finishing a visit to Washington. It also coincided with Iran agreeing to allow nuclear inspectors to return to its nuclear facilities and the U.S. and other world powers offering a restart in nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
"We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," Obama told his first news conference of the year. "We are going to continue to apply pressure even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they can rejoin the community of nations."
Obama spoke after Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich each presented themselves as hawkish alternatives to the president, unafraid of the consequences of military conflict.
The candidates paused while competing for votes in the high-stakes Super Tuesday primaries to join the speakers' lineup at a conference of America's leading pro-Israel lobby. Santorum appeared in person, while Romney and Gingrich spoke via satellite. All spoke of the need for even tougher sanctions or military action against Iran.
U.S. intelligence believes that Iran has the ability to build a nuclear weapon, but has not yet decided to do so. Israel believes it's too risky to wait and advocates a quicker pre-emptive strike.
Santorum sharply criticized the joint offer by the United States, European countries, Russia and China to resume talks with Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program as "another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward (with developing a nuclear weapon) while we talk."
Romney assailed the administration's go-slow approach on Iran, saying "the only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it."
And Gingrich waded into the divide between Obama and Netanyahu of "red lines," or benchmarks in Iran's nuclear development, that might demand a military response. Israel believes it has a shorter time frame to act because it lacks the military technology of the United States to attack Iran's underground nuclear facilities.
"The red line is now," Gingrich declared to a standing ovation.
Tehran insists that its program is peaceful and designed for energy purposes, but the U.S. and Israel don't believe that. The U.S. believes that Iran has the capability to make a nuclear weapon, but has not yet decided to do so.
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency further fed concerns Monday by saying his organization has "serious concerns" that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work. On Tuesday, however, a semi-official Iranian news agency said the country would grant U.N. inspectors access to a military complex where secret atomic work is suspected.
Obama has urged pressure and diplomacy, while Netanyahu has emphasized his nation's right to pre-emptive attack. Their relations appear thawed slightly from last year's confrontation over the Palestinians and the issue of Israeli settlements, but if they now share the same goal they remain split on tactics.
Obama and Netanyahu tried after their White House meeting Monday to present a united front on the nuclear threat emanating from Iran, despite their differences.
On Tuesday, the president rejected the criticism from his would-be GOP challengers.
"This is not a game and there is nothing casual about it," Obama told reporters. "When you actually ask them what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things we've been doing over the last three years. It indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
He said that if any of the Republican candidates truly believe it is time to start a war, they should explain their positions to the American people. "Everything else is just talk," he said.
The GOP's leading candidates have been hammering Obama on Iran for months, convinced that in Iran they've discovered a weak spot in his foreign policy record that includes ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden.
The Republicans criticize the president for failing to do enough three years ago when protests spread in response to Iran's fraud-riddled re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They say he has also stood in the way of tougher Iran sanctions, and unfairly put too much emphasis on warning Israel not to attack Iran prematurely.
"We've heard a lot of words from the administration. Its clear message has been to warn Israel to consider the costs of military action against Iran," Romney said. "Israel does not need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support."
Netanyahu met with influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Asked about the possible resumption of negotiations with Iran, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Netanyahu believes "sanctions haven't worked and he doesn't have much hope they will."
"He is in the camp that the Iranians play the negotiation game very much to their benefit and that they're hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon," said Graham, among those who met privately with Netanyahu. "I tend to agree but I'm willing to talk. I hope sanctions work. I'm willing to apply more. But time is not going to last forever. The Israelis have a different clock than we do."
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.