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Republican candidates bid to be toughest on Iran

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates competed to be the most hawkish on Iran and favorable to Israel before the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC on Tuesday, telling Iran it would be in real danger if it goes nuclear while they are in the White House.

"If Iran doesn't get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves," said Rick Santorum, the conservative former senator whose views on the subject already were well known. In January, Santorum said he would be in favor of launching U.S. air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Santorum, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and congressman Ron Paul were busy battling for U.S. votes on Tuesday, the biggest day in the race so far to be the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in the November 6 election. Ten states were holding primary contests on what is called "Super Tuesday."

But Santorum took time to appear in person while Romney and Gingrich provided video remarks to the annual gathering in Washington of AIPAC, which includes some of Israel's staunchest supporters in the United States. Paul, a libertarian who is critical of U.S. support for Israel, did not participate.

Romney, in a speech delivered by satellite link, assured AIPAC that if he becomes president, Israel will know that America stands at its side "in all conditions."

But Romney, who as the winner of the last five primary contests carried the momentum going into Tuesday's U.S. primary voting, was slightly more circumspect than Santorum in his choice of words about how he would respond as president to an Iranian nuclear program.

Romney said he would end Obama's "procrastination" on the matter by imposing further crippling sanctions on Tehran, and "I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits if it becomes nuclear."

"As president, I will be ready to engage in diplomacy. But I will be just as ready to engage our military might," Romney said.

GINGRICH SAYS INTEL COMMUNITY IS 'TIMID'

Gingrich, speaking by video link from the campaign trail in his native state of Georgia, said the U.S. State Department policy was wrong and the U.S. intelligence community was "timid."

As far as Gingrich was concerned, Iran already had crossed a "red line" with its nuclear program and was "deepening their commitment to nuclear weapons while we talk."

Iran insists its nuclear development is for generating nuclear power, not military purposes.

Gingrich, speaking in a week in which Obama has been appealing to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow international sanctions to work against Iran, indicated that if Israel wanted to attack Iran's nuclear sites, it did not need to check with him first.

"I will provide all available intelligence to the Israeli government, ensure that they have the equipment necessary, and reassure them, that if an Israeli prime minister decides that he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through pre-emptive measures, that I would require no advance notice," he said.

Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and the Israeli government is adamant it will not let Iran build an atomic bomb. Israel, believed to be the only nuclear power in the region, has been pushing Washington to pile pressure on Tehran to force it to abandon its nuclear program.

The Republicans' speeches contrasted sharply with Obama's to AIPAC earlier in the week, in which he warned against "loose talk" of a war with Iran and said "bluster" about a possible military strike was driving up oil prices.

Netanyahu sharpened his own tone toward Iran in remarks to AIPAC on Monday night, saying he had waited for diplomacy to work but "we cannot afford to wait much longer."

On Tuesday, Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for the "remarkable solidarity" he found in the U.S. Congress, which last year gave him some two dozen standing ovations during an address on Capitol Hill.

(Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott)

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