WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Sunday the United States will not hesitate to attack Iran with military force to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he cautioned that "too much loose talk of war" recently has only helped Tehran and driven up the price of oil.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing his ground against what his country perceives as a threat to its existence, said that he perhaps most appreciated hearing Obama say that "Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."
Speaking to the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Obama appealed to Israel for more time to let sanctions further isolate Iran. He sought to halt a drumbeat to war with Iran and hold off a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
"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," Obama told thousands at the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference. "Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built."
Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, Obama said he would "speak softly, but carry a big stick" — and warned Iran not to test US resolve.
Obama's widely anticipated speech came one day before he meets at the White House with Netanyahu, who planned to address AIPAC late Monday. Three GOP presidential candidates — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — were scheduled to speak to the conference via satellite on Tuesday, a critical day in the campaign when 10 states vote.
To Israel and to Jewish voters in this country, Obama promoted his administration's commitment to the Mideast ally.
"You don't have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds," Obama said. He defended his record of rallying to Israel's security and political sovereignty, saying: "We have been there for Israel. Every single time."
Obama's comments were heavily laced with the politics of the campaign. He blamed distortions of his record on partisan politics.
Netanyahu, in brief comments to reporters before attending a conference of Jewish leaders in Canada, made no reference to the sanctions and diplomatic avenues that Obama wants to give time to work.
The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, spoke before Obama and said that a nuclear Iran would be a menace to the world, not just to Israel's security.
"Iran is an evil, cruel, morally corrupt regime. It is based on destruction and is an affront to human dignity," Peres said. He said Israel knows the horrors of war and does not seek one with Iran, "but if we are forced to fight, trust me. We shall prevail."
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. US, Israel and many allies see no sign of that, and Israeli leaders openly have discussed the possibility of a military strike.
"Let's begin with the truth that you all understand: No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies that Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction," Obama said.
Obama said he would use all sources of American power, but that only true resolution would come from diplomacy.
US officials worry that an Israeli attack on oil-power Iran could drive up pump prices and entangle the US in a new Mideast confrontation during this year's presidential election season. They want to give diplomacy and economic penalties more time to work.
The United States and Europe have pursued more severe banking and other economic penalties separately. The toughest take effect this summer and target Iran's oil business and powerful central bank.
"I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy — backed by pressure — to succeed," Obama insisted.
And in his greatest detail to date, Obama spelled out the consequences of a military campaign against Iran.
"I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues," Obama said. "Already, there is too much loose talk of war."
The economic implications were on Obama's mind, too, as gas prices soar to the forefront of American concern ahead of the election.
In Israel, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said American pressure would not affect Israeli thinking on how to cope with the threat.
"We are an independent sovereign state, and at the end of the day, the state of Israel will make the most correct decisions as we understand them."
Many analysts believe an Israeli attack would result in a region-wide conflict, including Iranian attacks on American troops in the Persian Gulf, and could damage the world economy by causing oil prices to skyrocket. It also remains unclear how much damage a military strike would do to Iran's nuclear program. Many of the country's nuclear facilities are buried deep underground.
The Republican presidential candidates have accused Obama of failing to slow down Iran's nuclear pursuit. But Obama says world is more united than ever against Iran, and he blames Republicans for trying to drive a wedge between him and Jewish voters.
"You've had no evidence that the president is prepared to take steps to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. They talk and the Iranians build. They talk and the Iranians build," said GOP candidate Newt Gingrich said before Obama's speech. "We're being played for fools."
The Iranian threat all but shoved aside the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the dominant theme of Obama's speech to AIPAC last year, and the thrust of his Israeli policy focus to date. Peace talks between the two sides have stalled. On Sunday, Obama offered no new path, calling for the two sides to work toward separate states in peace.