Obama defends Iran policy to Israel's supporters

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President Obama on Sunday defended his blueprint for curtailing Iran's nuclear capabilities, using a speech before Israel's largest U.S. advocacy group to combat Republicans' election-year claims that the president hasn't been supportive enough of America's chief ally in the Middle East.

Obama told the nearly 13,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that he preferred taking a diplomatic approach to the rising threat of Iran but that he wouldn't eliminate any of the methods at his disposal to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"I do not have a policy of containment," Obama said, prompting the largest applause from a generally passive audience at the Washington Convention Center. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

But Obama also warned against the prospect of war with Iran, a topic certain to dominate talks between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday.

"Already, there is too much loose talk of war," he said. "Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. 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's AIPAC address comes at a pivotal moment for both his administration and his re-election efforts. Israeli officials have stepped up talks of a unilateral strike against Iran -- despite White House concerns -- as Republican presidential candidates seek to paint Obama as soft in his backing of a U.S. ally.

Obama touted his advocacy for Israel at the United Nations and the military support the U.S. has long been providing Israel, including anti-missile systems, as he tried to assuage concerns from those in attendance as well as Jewish voters around the country who could be vital to his re-election chances.

Republican presidential candidates are slated to speak to the conference on Tuesday, where they will likely assail the president on Israel. Such rhetoric was fully on display just moments before Obama took the stage here Sunday.

"There is no president who has done more to de-legitimize and undermine the state of Israel in recent history than President Obama," Liz Cheney, a former State Department official and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said to widespread applause.

Obama has been dogged by criticism that he weakened Israel's standing in peace negotiations since he suggested early in his first term that Israel retreat to its pre-1967 borders as a peace-talks concession to Palestinians. It was a proposal widely rejected by Israel and its U.S. supporters.

Yet, those anxieties largely were overshadowed Sunday by concerns about how Israel and the United States would ensure that Iran did not obtain a nuclear bomb.

"No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction," Obama said.

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