WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama stressed Sunday that he opposed
containment on Iran and could use military force if necessary to stop it from
acquiring nuclear weapons, but said there was still time for diplomacy to
One day before he hosts Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the
Oval Office, Obama hit on many Iran policy points Israel is looking for from the
United States. But his words to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Policy Conference also underscored the differences in the country’s
perspectives, including on the prospects for diplomacy, as he warned against
voices who are talking up the threat of war.
Obama also strongly defended
his record on Israel and sought to stave off Republican attacks during the
presidential campaign. Three leading candidates for the Republican nomination
will be addressing the AIPAC Policy Conference on Tuesday, which is the largest
annual American pro-Israel gathering.
This year over 13,000 people are
participating in the three-day conference. On the campaign trail, GOP contenders
have already attacked Obama for not being forceful enough on Iran.
not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining
a nuclear weapon,” he declared to a standing ovation.
“I will not
hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its
And he emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself as
“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,” Obama
said, which also earned him a standing ovation.
But as the US looks to
begin another round of negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program, he
also underscored that “I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed.” That sentence received silence from
Divergences on how much time to give diplomacy and what
conditions must be imposed on Iran in any talks are among the main points Obama
will address with Netanyahu at their meeting on Monday. The prime minister will
address AIPAC on Monday evening.
Obama also issued a warning against
speaking too loudly about the possibility of conflict with Iran, cautioning that
heightened rhetoric could play into its hands.
“There is too much loose
talk of war,” he said. “Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited
the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon
to fund their nuclear program.”
He continued, “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. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and
to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.”
time being, Obama said that Iran would face even more “crippling sanctions” over
the course of the year as world powers worked together to put an end to Tehran’s
“A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to
Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security
interests of the United States,” he said in one of the lines that received the
most applause during his 34-minute speech. He was warmly received entering and
leaving the hall, receiving extended standing ovations.
Obama nodded to
the political context for his remarks as well, offering a string of actions he
has taken in support of Israel to bolster his contention that questions about
his record of support for Israel is misplaced.
He pointed to defense
assistance to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, support for Israel at
the UN and opposition to boycotts of the Jewish state.
“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,” he said to some
He then received a rousing response to his admonition that “the
US-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan
Obama also defended his efforts to broker a deal between
Israelis and Palestinians, which have at times earned him criticism from members
of the Jewish community.
To those critics, he said: “I make no apologies
for pursuing peace.”
Obama opened his speech by praising President Shimon
Peres, who preceded him at the podium, and announcing that he had decided to
award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Speaking to reporters after
his address, Peres said that he was surprised to hear Obama’s declaration but
welcomed the honor.
Peres also enthusiastically praised Obama for his
remarks on Iran and Israel.
“I can’t remember a pro- Israel speech like
we heard today,” he said. “He answered all the questions Israel is
Peres pointed to Obama’s support for sanctions on Iran and his
statement that Israel is a national security interest of the United
Though Israel is looking for quick action on Iran and is worried
that diplomacy could drag out the process without timelines in place, Peres said
that he had not expected Obama to “stand up and give dates.”
spoke warmly of the US president in his own AIPAC address on
“Thank you, President Obama, for being such a good friend,” he
said to open his address.
He later said that there was “no space between
us” in needing to deny Iran a nuclear weapon, though many others have pointed to
different perspectives on many of the details of the policy preferences of the
Peres also stressed Israel’s interest in peace, but
declared that if Israel decided to take military action against Iran it would
“Peace is always our first option. But, if we are forced to
fight, trust me – we shall prevail,” he said to applause.
Iran’s “ambition is to control the Middle East,” he said that its nuclear
program “must be stopped, and it will be stopped.”