WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and the Republican presidential hopefuls clashed Tuesday over how to address Iran's nuclear program. The Republican contenders accused Obama of weakness, while Obama blasted back that presidents do not 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 primary elections 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 is 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 Republican challengers.
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