The Republican presidential hopefuls brandished their pro-Israel credentials, accusing President Barack Obama of weakness with Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked Mideast strategy with congressional leaders.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich paused while competing for votes in the high-stakes Super Tuesday primary elections to join the speaker lineup at a Washington, D.C., conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Romney and Gingrich appeared by satellite, while Santorum spoke to the group in person.
Santorum immediately criticized Tuesday's offer by the United States, European countries, Russia and China to resume talks with Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program. He termed it "another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk."
Romney assailed the administration's go-slow approach on Iran, saying "hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it."
Ron Paul, whose isolationist foreign policy positions have not endeared him to Israel's U.S. advocates, did not address the conference.
The politicking is taking place at a time of tense debate among Israel, the United States and much of the world over the best strategy for convincing Iran to halt uranium enrichment and come clean on its nuclear activity.
Tehran insists that its program is peaceful and designed for energy purposes, but the United States and Israel do not believe that. The United States 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 the nuclear agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out.
Obama has urged pressure and diplomacy, while Netanyahu has emphasized his nation's right to pre-emptive attack. While their relations appear thawed slightly from last year's confrontation over the Palestinians and the issue of Israeli settlements, they still do not see eye-to-eye on the best tactics for their shared goal.
"We have made clear to the regime in Tehran and to our allies in the region: we want diplomacy to work," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the conference Tuesday, describing U.S.-Israel ties as tighter than any time during his three decades in government.
"Military action is the last alternative when all else fails," Panetta said. "But make no mistake. We will act if we have to."
The Republicans' leading candidates have been hammering Obama on Iran for months, convinced that they have discovered a weak spot in his foreign policy record. Obama has countered those attempts by noting that his administration ended the war in Iraq and killed Osama bin Landen.
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."
This narrative is one the administration is fiercely contesting. The president has gone to great lengths in recent days to stress his pro-Israel positions on issues ranging from security to international diplomacy. He was scheduled to have a news conference later Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu met Tuesday with members of Congress, where he got a warmer reception to his tough talk on Iran than he got at the White House on Monday.
Obama and Netanyahu tried Monday to present a united front on the nuclear threat emanating from Iran. The U.S. leader reaffirmed that he would resort to military force, if necessary, to keep Iran from getting a bomb and said the United States "always has Israel's back where Israel's security is concerned."
But the two men were unable to plaster over differences on how urgently military force might be needed.
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