Obama chides rivals for 'popping off' about war with Iran over nukes

At a Super Tuesday press conference, Obama sought to draw a sharp line between himself and the GOP presidential field over handling of the Iran nuclear program. 'Loose talk,' he suggested, does not befit a commander in chief.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Barack Obama addresses a news conference in the White House Briefing Room in Washington Tuesday. The president cautioned his rivals against 'loose talk' of war with Iran.

President Obama used a Super Tuesday press conference to draw a sharp distinction between himself and his Republican presidential rivals on the issue of Iran, suggesting “loose talk” about a war with Iran is not befitting of a commander in chief.

On the same day that three Republican presidential candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich – fired up a pro-Israel conference in Washington with talk of US intervention in Iran and with criticism of Mr. Obama’s “diplomacy first” approach, the president reiterated his preference for a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis.

“Those who are … beating the drums of war should explain to the American people what they think the costs and benefits of war would be,” Mr. Obama said. “Typically it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price,” he added, noting that instead it is the men and women of the military, some of whom don’t come home.

Obama’s message seemed to be: Other politicians can speak of war with “casualness” if they choose, but the commander in chief cannot. “This is not a game and there is nothing casual about it,” he said.

Yet Obama the politician also knows that polls show war-weary Americans oppose by a wide margin a military intervention against Iran. The underlying political message seemed all the clearer given that the president chose to hold his first press conference since October on the day 10 states hold Republican primaries and caucuses in their presidential nominating process.     

At the press conference, Obama repeated what he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House Monday – that his policy is not one of “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran, but of preventing Iran from ever obtaining the bomb.

“We will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. At the same time, both American and Israeli intelligence officials believe there is “a window of opportunity [in which] this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said.

Tuesday's press conference took place shortly after the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, announced that the six world powers involved in stalled talks with Iran on its nuclear program agreed in a letter to Iran to a return to negotiations. The EU announcement did not offer any dates or place for the renewed talks.

Obama said he would not reveal everything he told Mr. Netanyahu in their two-hour meeting, but he gave some hints on how he answered some of the questions the Israeli leader is thought to have asked.

On the question of how much time the so-called “5 +1” powers – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany – expect to give Iran in the upcoming talks, Obama said, “We will have a pretty good sense fairly quickly how serious they are.”

Netanyahu said in his speech Monday night to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that negotiations in the past have simply provided Iran cover – and time – for pursuing its nuclear goals. US officials acknowledge there is truth in that observation, noting for example that in some past “negotiations” Iran has completely avoided any talk of its nuclear program and instead focused on its historical grievances with the West.

That is why US and European officials say they found promising the fact that Iran, in its correspondence with Lady Ashton on renewing a dialogue, has specifically referred to nuclear issues to be on the agenda.

Obama also addressed reporters' questions about Syria and Afghanistan, calling the Syria situation “heartbreaking” and outrageous.” But he also said that addressing it is “more complicated” than the Libya crisis of a year ago and can’t be solved with the “simple solution” of unilateral military action.

A day earlier, US Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said the US should begin air strikes on Syria to hasten the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and create cover for a humanitarian intervention.

On Aghanistan, Obama said the recent violence against American personnel in the aftermath of the case of Quran burning at a US-administered prison was “not acceptable.” But he resisted the suggestion of a reporter that the crisis indicated a “deterioration” in US-Afghan relations, and he said the military drawdown plan for turning over all security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 would be pursued unchanged.

On all these issues, Obama sought to portray himself as the commander in chief who is weighing his decisions seriously – and with his top priority being America’s troops – while others who don’t have the responsibility “pop off” with “casual” talk of war.

Saying any military intervention has too many consequences to be considered lightly, the president added, “Sometimes we bear that cost, but we think it through.”

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