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.
"We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," Obama said at a news conference. "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 spoke at a conference of America's leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 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.
"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 United States and Israel don't believe that. And while Obama has urged pressure and diplomacy, Netanyahu has emphasized his nation's right to pre-emptive attack.
The president rejected the criticism from his would-be GOP challengers. 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.