“I do not have a policy of containment,” Mr. Obama said, to applause from the huge crowd in the darkened, cavernous hall at the Walter E. 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 the president also made clear that he views diplomacy, and the policy of sanctions set in motion by the United States and Europe, as the West’s best hope for getting Iran to stop short of pursuing a nuclear weapon. “Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Mr. Obama said on Sunday. “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.”
He has said repeatedly that he does not think a military strike, either by Israel or the United States, would do more than delay an Iranian nuclear program.
In a rare detour to domestic politics in what was billed as a foreign policy speech, Mr. Obama chided “partisan politics,” which he said had no place in national security debates. He issued a lengthy defense of actions he has taken as president to protect Israel, including military aid, support for Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system, and his decision, to great criticism around the world, to throw the weight of the United States directly in the path of the Arab democracy movement last fall when he opposed the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood through the United Nations Security Council.
He issued a pre-emptive challenge to the long roster of Republican presidential candidates and congressional representatives who will be speaking to the organization on Monday and Tuesday. “You can expect that over the next few days, you will hear many fine words from elected officials describing their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mr. Obama said.
“But as you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words,” he said. “You can look at my deeds.”
Mr. Obama declared, to applause: “There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” He added: “So if during this political season you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts.”
It was at times a defensive speech, delivered by a president who came into office and was initially criticized for pushing Israel too hard to make concessions for peace with thePalestinians. Over three years, Mr. Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has deteriorated as Mr. Netanyahu balked at American demands. Mr. Obama himself has retreated, largely putting aside the Palestinian issue for the rest of this term.
But Mr. Obama has nonetheless been dogged by Republican criticism that he has not backed Israel enough, with the Iran nuclear issue now front and center as the most obvious means for Mr. Obama and the Republican candidates vying to replace him to demonstrate support for Israel, which views a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.
Listening to the conference, it often seemed as if the Palestinian question — which dominated last year’s conference and which has bedeviled American, Arab and Israeli peace negotiators for decades — no longer existed. This year, the bulk of the talk was about Iran and how far Israel and its American backers would go to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
“As the president said, all options are on the table,” said President Shimon Peres of Israel, who appeared before the group just before Mr. Obama spoke. ‘There is no space between us.”
But demonstrating the hesitance throughout the American intelligence and foreign policy communities about repeating the mistakes of the Iraq war, Mr. Obama made a reference to American intelligence assessments, which continue to say that there is no evidence that Iran has made a final decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. Recent assessments by American spy agencies have reaffirmed intelligence findings in 2007 and 2010 that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.
He called for increased diplomatic pressure aimed at persuading the Iranian regime that it should abandon any nuclear program.
“As president and commander in chief, I have a deeply held preference for peace over war,” Mr. Obama said. “I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I have seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who have come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home.”
Mr. Obama is to meet with Mr. Netanyahu on Monday at the White House, where the prime minister is expected to continue the effort to pressure the United States to take a harder line on Iran. Specifically, Mr. Netanyahu wants Mr. Obama to be more explicit about the circumstances under which the United States itself would carry out a strike.
Israeli officials are demanding that Iran agree to halt all of its enrichment of uranium in the country, and that the suspension be verified by United Nations inspectors, before the West resumes negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program.
The White House has rejected that demand, and argues that Iran would never agree to a blanket ban upfront, and to insist on it would doom negotiations before they even began. The administration insists that Mr. Obama will stick to his policy, which is focused on using economic sanctions to force the Iranian government to give up its nuclear ambitions, with military action as a last resort.
Mr. Obama called the image of wounded American soldiers “the most searing of my presidency.”
“For this reason,” he said, “as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.”