Obama says diplomacy can stop Iran’s nuclear arms plans

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama declared Tuesday that diplomacy can still resolve the crisis over Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons, and he accused his Republican critics of “beating the drums of war.”

“Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said. “They are not commander in chief.”

Tension with Iran, and Obama’s preference for restraint, dominated his first full news conference of the year, held on the same day that Republican Super Tuesday voting was drawing attention as well.

On politics, Obama said that higher gasoline prices as a result of Mideast worries would be a bad idea for any president running for re-election, and he also said he was working to expand America’s energy base.

He called violence in Syria “heartbreaking” but showed no new willingness for military involvement in that Mideast country.

Obama said his critics are forgetting the “cost of war” in their rush to punish Iran and defend Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as a mortal threat in its Mideast neighborhood.

Rhetoric on the right is “more about politics than about trying to solve a difficult problem,” Obama said.

He said he is focused on “crippling sanctions” already imposed on Iran and on international pressure to keep that nation from developing a nuclear weapon.

Obama said his private meetings with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu this week carried the same message as his public pronouncements. And he implied that Israeli pressure for urgent action was not supported by the facts, saying that a decision was not necessary within the next weeks or months.

He added that Iranians need to show how serious they are about resolving the crisis. He said there are steps the Iranians can take “that are verifiable” and will allow it to be “in compliance with international norms and mandates.”

On gas prices, Obama dismissed as laughable the suggestion by some Republican critics that he actually wants increases.

He said no president facing re-election would want to see gas prices rise because of the hardship that would cause to American families, and that he’s asking his attorney general to examine whether speculation in the oil markets is driving up oil prices.

In the past month, gasoline prices have risen by more than 28 cents per gallon, making gasoline the most expensive ever for this time of year. On Tuesday, the nationwide average for regular unleaded slipped less than a penny to $3.764 per gallon, ending a string of price increases that began on Feb. 8.

On another political issue, Obama said Democrats will have a “better story” than Republicans to tell female voters in the November election.

The president said he does not believe women will be single-issue voters. But he says his party has the better plan for women on everything from housing to education.

The White House has sought to cast the recent debate over contraception access as a women’s rights issue. Obama reached out to a Georgetown Law School student who was criticized by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh because of her vocal support for his administration’s requirement of birth control insurance coverage. Some Democratic lawmakers have sought to raise money on the issue.

Women are a critical voting bloc for Obama’s re-election campaign.

Obama said he Obama said he telephoned the student, Sandra Fluke, who was labeled a “slut” by Limbaugh because he doesn’t want people who speak their minds about policy issues to be discouraged or attacked.

Asked to comment on Limbaugh’s apology, Obama says he doesn’t know “what’s in Rush Limbaugh’s heart.”

Obama said the incident made him think of his two daughters and his hopes that they can engage in issues they care about in the future. He said he doesn’t want his daughters “attacked or called horrible names” for speaking their minds and being good citizens.

On Syria, Obama said unilateral military action by the United States against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad would be a mistake. He rejected a comparison to Libya, where the United States and allies did intervene last year.

Syria, he said, is more complicated. Russia has blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution against Assad’s government, and Assad’s military is better equipped and more powerful than the Libyan force.

Obama has resisted calls to get drawn into the turmoil in Syria to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters. More than 7,500 people have been killed there.

The preferred U.S. strategy has been to use sanctions and international diplomatic isolation to pressure Assad into handing over power.

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