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In jam, Romney tries not to make new Iran policy

Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses next to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — Mitt Romney tried to pull back Sunday from an adviser's suggestion that he favored new American aggression on Iran, distancing himself from comments that the U.S. presidential candidate would "respect" an Israeli decision for unilateral military action to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear capability.

Hours after the aide previewed Romney's upcoming foreign policy speech in Jerusalem, Romney backpedaled and said, "I'll use my own words and that is I respect the right of Israel to defend itself and we stand with Israel. We're two nations that come together in peace and that want to see Iran being dissuaded from its nuclear folly."

The address by the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama was promoted as the centerpiece of a weeklong trip abroad designed to burnish his foreign policy credentials and highlight his ability to lead on the world stage. But the mixed signals on Iran could undermine that goal.

"Because I'm on foreign soil, I don't want to be creating new foreign policy for my country or in any way to distance myself from the foreign policy of our nation, but we respect the right of a nation to defend itself," the former Massachusetts governor told CBS' "Face the Nation" a few hours before the speech and a day before a major fundraiser in the city.

Obama has affirmed the right of Israel to defend itself, while also warning of the consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran.

"Already, there is too much loose talk of war," Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. "Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built."

An Obama ally, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, reaffirmed Obama's position that the U.S. "will stand with Israel."

"But this president has understood that the two choices between all-out war and Iran having a nuclear weapon are choices we don't want to face," Durbin told CNN's "State of the Union."

"I understand Mitt Romney is on this political tour doing this fundraiser in Israel, but the point is the president has had to sit down as he has over and over again with Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu and work out a sound policy to avoid the prospect of war."

The Romney adviser, Dan Senor, told reporters earlier in previewing the address that "if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision." He said Romney is careful to note that he believes preventing nuclear "capability," not just a nuclear weapon, is critical.

Senor later clarified his comments in a written statement, saying that the candidate "believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded."

Romney said in the interview that "we should use every diplomatic and political vehicle that's available to us to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear-capable state. Those actions should be executed with the greatest speed we could muster. ... If all those options fail then we do have other options and we don't take those other options off the table."

Romney has said he will do "the opposite" of what Obama would do in his approach to Israel. The Obama administration hasn't ruled out the military option, but Obama has so far been relying on economic sanctions and diplomatic negotiations to discourage Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

"Are there differences between us? Of course. But being on foreign soil, particularly being here in Israel, this isn't the time for me to draft those out," Romney said.

In his speech, the candidate tells Israelis that "make no mistake: The ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way."

According to excerpts released by the campaign before the speech, Romney says his message "to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country."

While the address was before an audience of Israelis, the message was aimed squarely at Jewish and evangelical Christian voters in the United States as he tried to highlight policy differences with Obama.

He says the nuclear threat has increased in recent years and that Iran's claims that its program is for peaceful purposes "are belied by years of malign deceptions."

"The conduct of Iran's leaders gives us no reason to trust them with nuclear material," he says in the speech, which followed a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Romney, who received a warm welcome Netanyahu, has said he has a "zero tolerance" policy toward Iran obtaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

Pentagon officials have spoken publicly about the difficulty of such a strike and American officials have expressed concern about the destabilizing effect such military action could have in the region, even if carried out successfully.

Iran says it is not interested in nuclear weapons and its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes. The Israelis say they are considering a strike because they fear Iran could be moving its nuclear enrichment sites further underground, out of reach of the weapons Israel has available.

Romney's embrace of Israel was on display Sunday as he met with leaders and visited the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Wearing a yarmulke, the candidate was mobbed by worshippers as he walked down to pray and place a note into one of the wall's crevices.

Earlier, Netanyahu welcomed Romney as "a representative of the United States" and told the Republican that he agrees with his approach to the Iranian nuclear threat.

"Mitt, I couldn't agree with you more," Netanyahu said.

"We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota. And that's why I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat coupled with the sanctions to have a chance to change that situation," Netanyahu said.

Romney also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Iran's nuclear program has become the most pressing problem for the U.S. and Israel. Republicans have criticized the Democratic president for putting too much pressure on Israel in the peace process and being weak on Iran.

Obama rejects the criticism, and his aides point to what they call unprecedented U.S.-Israeli security cooperation.

Just on Friday, Obama said he was releasing plans to send $70 million in military aid for Israel. The new money is aimed at helping Israel expand production of a short-range rocket defense system, called Iron Dome, that can block fire from nearby Gaza and other places.

Romney arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday night after a difficult few days in Britain, where he made the mistake of questioning the host country's preparation for the Olympic Games. The gaffe undermined the goal of his weeklong journey through Britain, Israel and Poland — to show he can operate effectively on the world stage.

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