Obama: There's still time for diplomacy on Iran

US president tells AIPAC Conference he could use military force if necessary to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons.

US President Barack Obama at AIPAC Conference 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst )
US President Barack Obama at AIPAC Conference 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst )
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 work.
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.
“I do 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 interests.”
And he emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself as well.
“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 the audience.
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.”
For the 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 nuclear ambitions.
“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 applause.
He then received a rousing response to his admonition that “the US-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics.”
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 asking.”
Peres pointed to Obama’s support for sanctions on Iran and his statement that Israel is a national security interest of the United States.
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.”
Peres also spoke warmly of the US president in his own AIPAC address on Sunday.
“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 two countries.
Peres also stressed Israel’s interest in peace, but declared that if Israel decided to take military action against Iran it would triumph.
“Peace is always our first option. But, if we are forced to fight, trust me – we shall prevail,” he said to applause.
Charging that Iran’s “ambition is to control the Middle East,” he said that its nuclear program “must be stopped, and it will be stopped.”