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Obama calls for containing Iran, says 'too much loose talk of war'

President Obama on Sunday offered a forceful defense of his support for Israel and said while he will take no option off the table to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, "there is too much loose talk of war."

Speaking to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama said he wants to pursue a diplomatic and sanctions route to resolution. 

"Now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built," he said.

Taking credit for uniting world opposition to Iran, he said when he took office "efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters" and the Islamic regime was "ascendant." Since then, the U.S. policy of engagement has exposed Iran and effectively isolated it through strong sanctions.

"That is where we are today. Iran is isolated, its leadership divided and under pressure. And the Arab Spring has only increased these trends, as the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is exposed, and its ally -- the (Syrian) Assad regime -- is crumbling," he said.

Acknowledging that the problem is still unresolved, Obama said he wants to pursue greater sanctions against Iran.

"Iran's leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States," he said. "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; 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."

Last week, the president said he doesn't "bluff" when it comes to ending Iran's nuclear program. However, with Israel warning of a preemptive strike, the two allies are seemingly at odds.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who just returned from a trip to the Middle East, told "Fox News Sunday" that Obama has to be much more clear and forceful about what is expected of Iran.

The president must have "more specific and muscular content" about what are all the options on the table, Blumenthal said. 

There must be a "common definition conveyed privately to Iran so that they know what they need to do," added Graham.

Naftali Bennett, a former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was pleased at the president's claim that his policy is not one of containment, but the Israelis can't "outsource" their security by counting on "big words" followed by a "very, very small step." 

He said waiting for a new sanctions regime out of the U.N. in June only delays Israel's opportunity to prevent Iran from literally going underground. 

"What we need now is not crippling sanctions; we need paralyzing sanctions that will bring Iran's economy to the brink of collapse. We are nowhere near that right now," Bennett told Fox News.

Appearing in Canada, Netanyahu said Sunday he "appreciates" Obama's position, but thought most important in the president's comments is that Israel "must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

On Monday, Obama receives Netanhayu at the White House. Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod said Sunday that the two leaders are "going to sit down and they are going to talk through the tactics involved, but no one should doubt the president's resolve."

While the president used his remarks to convey his view of the Iranian situation, he also took a stab at his Republican critics and defended his commitment to Israel as "unprecedented," saying any suggestions that his support is less than whole are politically motivated. 

Obama said that the U.S. and Israel have kept up six decades of friendship -- in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- because the two countries are bound by shared interests -- in security, prosperity and "science that can light the world."

"In the United States, our support for Israel is bipartisan, and that is how it should stay," he said, adding, "If during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration's support for Israel, remember that it's not backed up by the facts." 

Using another official White House speech to make a political point, the president said that U.S. and Israeli security is "too important to be distorted by partisan politics." 

He added that he personally has upheld the relationship.

"You don't just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture -- at every fork in the road -- we have been there for Israel. Every single time," he said.

The president rattled off a list of actions his administration has taken to defend Israel against an onslaught of criticism, including responding to the deeply one-sided U.N. Human Rights Council's Goldstone Report, defending Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident and boycotting the Durban conference that sought to declare Zionism as racism. 

He added that the U.S. and Israel are cooperating in military and intelligence cooperation, investing in new technology for Israel to defend itself, including funding the Iron Dome missile defense system. 

"When the chips are down, I have Israel's back," he said.

Responding to the remarks, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said the president has "failed" when it comes to supporting dissidents when they took to the streets in Tehran.

"He had nothing to say," Romney said. "He's also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and in fact in our hand. ... 

"It's pretty straight forward in my view. If Barack Obama gets re-elected Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that's the case. ... If they have fissile material, then the world has changed. And I'm not willing to allow your generation to have to worry about a threat from Iran or anyone else that nuclear material be used against Americans," Romney said.

Newt Gingrich, speaking before the president's appearance, suggested Obama better not bluff when it comes to the question of Israel's survival.

"The question for the president is, if the Israeli prime minister decides that he cannot afford to take the risk of waiting to see whether or not the intelligence agencies are right, and he decides that for the survival of Israel, he has to do something to take out (Iran's) weapons systems, will the president in fact support him, or will the president try to stop him? I think that's the core question," Gingrich told ABC.

Ahead of Obama's remarks Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres called Obama an "unwavering" ally.

"Ladies and gentleman, we have a friend in the White House that reflects the values that made America great and made Israel secure," he said.

In return, Obama announced he was honoring Peres this spring with a White House ceremony to present him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"I am grateful for his life's work and his moral example," he said. "In many ways, this award is a symbol of the broader ties that bind our nations. The United States and Israel share interests, but we also share those human values" of dignity, freedom and democracy.