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Distant drums

Politics | In his first press conference of the year President Obama faces questions on potential war with Iran

WASHINGTON-The White House said it was coincidental that President Obama held his first press conference of the year on Super Tuesday, when primary and caucus voters go to the polls in 10 states, but reporters focused on the rising threat of Iran, not domestic politics.

"Now, I understand there are some political contests going on tonight," Obama began, to chuckles. "But I thought I'd start the day off by taking a few questions, which I'm sure will not be political in nature."

The press pursued questions mainly on whether Israel and the United States are moving toward war with Iran. Obama ratcheted back talk of any military action, saying that the new economic sanctions the administration has imposed need time to work, with new oil sanctions set to take effect in July. He also said the Iranian government has shown openness to diplomatic talks.

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"We have a window through which we can resolve this issue peacefully," Obama said.

The Republican presidential candidates have criticized the president for being naive in his policy toward Iran, and they have questioned his support of Israel.

"Hope is not a foreign policy," said Mitt Romney on Tuesday in a speech to AIPAC, the Washington-based Israel lobby. "Israel does not need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support."

At the White House on Tuesday, Obama said the Republican candidates were full of "bluster" and "big talk." "Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities," he said. "They're not the commander in chief. When I see the casualness with which these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. … If some of these folks think it's time to launch a war, they should say so and explain to the American people why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk."

But talk is mostly what the United States is doing right now on Iran. Obama spoke at AIPAC on Monday night, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech, Obama insisted "that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy," but he added, "When it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power." He promised, "When the chips are down, I have Israel's back."

In the White House press conference, ABC News' Jake Tapper asked Obama, "What does that mean?" And Obama's response indicated that his AIPAC speech wasn't a pledge of support for a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran.

"What it means is, is that, historically, we have always cooperated with Israel with respect to the defense of Israel, just like we do with a whole range of other allies-just like we do with Great Britain, just like we do with Japan," he said. "It was not a military doctrine that we were laying out for any particular military action."

The president also answered questions on gas prices (he would like them lower), immigration reform (he likes the idea), Rush Limbaugh's apology to Georgetown student Sandra Fluke (he can't say whether it was sincere), and whether he agreed with the head of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman Schultz that Republicans were waging a "war on women," a question he dodged.

"Women are going to make up their own mind in this election about who is advancing the issues that they care most deeply about," he said. "It's not going to be narrowly focused on contraception … it's going to be driven by their view of what's most likely to make sure they can help support their families, make their mortgage payments."

Another reporter asked why the president hadn't addressed offensive name-calling from liberal commentators like he did with Limbaugh, and Obama said, "I would be very busy. I would not have time to do my job."

That's about as domestic as the press conference got.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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