U.S. President Barack Obama stood firm Tuesday amid criticisms from Republican presidential hopefuls his stance on Iran is weak.
Their more hawkish views about how to handle Tehran's nuclear program amounted to little more than "a lot of big talk," the president told reporters at the White House.
The president said a more sober approach revolving around the continuation of "crippling sanctions" was the way to go. He characterized the hard-line proposals by candidates on the GOP campaign trail as dangerous posturing.
"Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities — they're not commander in chief," Obama said during his first White House press briefing of the year. "And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs involved in war."
Obama said the war-making rhetoric doesn't weigh potential human and economic consequences at home, and suggested the tough talk from his Republican challengers is mostly about winning a political contest.
"When I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do — it turns out that they would repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years," he said.
The debate over how best to resolve the issue of a potential nuclear Iran occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrapped up his three-day visit to Washington with a stop at Capitol Hill. There, Netanyahu met with bipartisan groups of Senate and House leaders in closed-door discussions, which were expected to be dominated by the Iran situation.
On Monday, Netanyahu met with Obama in the Oval Office and emphasized Israel's right to a pre-emptive strike if Iran is indeed making progress on manufacturing bombs; Obama maintained that he felt a diplomatic solution was still within reach.
It was the same message Obama communicated at Tuesday's news conference.
"We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," he said. "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."
Iran agrees to allow nuclear inspections
In a possible sign international relations with Iran could be thawing, Iran has agreed to allow nuclear inspectors to return to its nuclear facilities. The U.S. and other world powers offered a restart in nuclear negotiations.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a political commentator and one-time national security adviser to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, told CBC News he sided with Obama's assessment that sanctions were "biting" Iran.
He cautioned against escalating talk of war and agreed the best course would be to see whether the sanctions will create some room for compromise and bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table.
"It's very easy to start a war, but it's not so clear how to end it," Brzezinski said. "And a war today in the Middle East will not only involve Iran and Israel, but there will be retaliation against us because we'll be accused of conniving. Our troops in Afghanistan would be at risk; stability in Iraq would be at risk; the price of oil would skyrocket. I think one must be prudent and intelligent and not bluster."
Obama's remarks came after Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich addressed a conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. The three Republican rivals all spoke of a desire for the U.S. to act tougher on Iran, even if that action meant military intervention.
Military action needed against Iran, Romney says
Negotiations were pointless, Romney told the gathering of America's leading pro-Israel lobby.
"The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it," Romney said, alluding to a willingness to engage in military conflict.
Romney also accused Obama of failing to support Israel and focusing too much on publicly lecturing Israel against a pre-emptive attack.
U.S. intelligence believes that Iran has the ability to build a nuclear weapon, but has not yet decided to do so. Iran has continually insisted its nuclear program is peaceful, but Israel believes it is too risky to wait and advocates a quicker pre-emptive strike.
Santorum sharply criticized the joint offer by the U.S., 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."
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. Israel believes it has a shorter time frame to act because it lacks the military technology of the United States to attack Iran's underground nuclear facilities.
"The red line is now," Gingrich declared to a standing ovation.
The head of the UN nuclear agency further fed concerns Monday, saying his organization has "serious concerns" that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work. However, on Tuesday, a semi-official Iranian news agency said the country would grant UN inspectors access to a military complex where secret atomic work is suspected.
"If some of these folks think it's time to launch a war, then they should say so," Obama told reporters. "And they should explain to the American people why, exactly, they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk."
He said he was minded of the costs involved in war, and about the decisions he's had to make in the past in terms of sending young men and women into battle.
"This is not a game and there is nothing casual about it," Obama said.
The leading Republican candidates have been hammering Obama on Iran for months, convinced that in Iran they've discovered a weak spot in his foreign policy record that includes ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden.
The Republicans have criticized 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.