GOP Candidates Criticize Obama On Iran

The GOP presidential hopefuls addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, D.C., on a day their campaigns battled in 10 state contests. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all criticized President Obama for his handling of Iran, and the president returned fire during an afternoon news conference.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Today is Super Tuesday, the biggest one-day contest in the race to decide the Republican presidential nominee. Still, three of the four contenders spent time today addressing a crowd of people who were not casting votes, the annual conference in Washington, D.C. of AIPAC. That's the powerful group that lobbies on behalf of Israel. As NPR's David Welna reports, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich all focused on tensions with Iran.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The only Republican presidential candidate to show up in person at the AIPAC conference was Rick Santorum. He spoke without notes to a welcoming crowd.

RICK SANTORUM: As you may know, this is a somewhat important day in my life today. We have a whole lot of primaries going on all across the nation, ten of them. But I wanted to come off the campaign trail to come here.

WELNA: Santorum quickly donned the mantel of foreign policy second guesser in chief. First, he accused President Obama of turning his back on the people of Israel. That was followed by this.

SANTORUM: We now have an announcement today that the administration has agreed to open talks with the Iranian government. That is in spite of UN resolutions that says they must stop the processing of their nuclear fuel in order to get those negotiations. Another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk.

WELNA: Mitt Romney spoke via video link to the fiercely pro-Israel crowd. He, too, faulted how President Obama has dealt with Israel and questioned the wisdom of warning Israel about the costs of taking military action against Iran.

MITT ROMNEY: I don't believe we should be issuing public warnings that create distance between the United States and Israel. Israel doesn't need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support.

WELNA: Romney said he stood ready to implement what he called crippling sanctions against Iran, but he also signaled his support for military action.

ROMNEY: As president, I'll be ready to engage in diplomacy, but I will be just as ready to engage our military might. Israel will know that America stands at its side in all conditions and in all consequence.

WELNA: Not to be outdone, in a video hookup from Georgia, Newt Gingrich said if he were president, the U.S. would not keep talking with Iran if it crosses a red line failing to stop its nuclear program.

NEWT GINGRICH: The red line is now, because the Iranians, now, are deepening their fortifications, deepening their underground laboratories, deepening their commitment to nuclear weapons - while we talk.

WELNA: Like Romney, Gingrich said he would make it clear to Israel...

GINGRICH: That if an Israeli prime minister decides that he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through preemptive measures, that I would require no advance notice to understand why I would support the right of Israel to survive in a dangerous world.

WELNA: The response, hours later from the White House, was caustic.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief.

WELNA: At a news conference, President Obama chided the candidates for what he characterized as their casual talk of war.

OBAMA: 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 they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years. It indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.

WELNA: The president himself has apparently not ruled out war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the AIPAC conference today that military action is the last alternative with Iran, then added, when all else fails, we will act. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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