Mitt Romney 2007 AP
Mitt Romney Photo by AP
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U.S. Republican presidential candidates U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (left), Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney (right), in Arizona, Feb. 22, 2012. Photo by Reuters

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney critizised the approach of U.S. President Barack Obama vis a vis Iran on Wednesday, saying he should have communicated that a military option is not only on the table, but "in our hand."

Speaking at the Republican Debate in Arizona, Romney said Obama, who has tightened sanctions against Iran several times including recent measures against its central bank, could have imposed "crippling sanctions" on Iran, but chose not to.

"Every communication we've had so far is that he does not want Israel to take action; that he opposes military action. This is a president who should have, instead, communicated to Iran that we are prepared, that we are considering military options; they're not just on the table, they are in our hand."

Romney warned of the danger a nuclear Iran would pose in light of its proxies. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could give fissile material to Hezbollah and Hamas, who, in turn, could bring it into Latin America and potentially across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs or more sophisticated bombs, said Romney.

Joining Romney at the Republican Debate on Wednesday were the three other remaining GOP candidates, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. The event marked the final debate before Arizona and Michigan vote on February 28, and before Super Tuesday, when ten states will vote on March 6.

Fellow Republican Newt Gingrich referred to a comment made by Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who described Iran as a "rational actor" in an interview with CNN on Sunday. Gingrich said he could not imagine why Dempsey described Iran as "rational". "The fact is," said Gingrich, "this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn't believe the Holocaust existed. This is a dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the Earth. This is a dictator who said he wants to drive the United States out of the Middle East. I'm inclined to believe dictators. I think that it's dangerous not to."

Gingrich added that he would support a preemptive strike if an Israeli prime minister, "haunted by the history of the Holocaust", were to call him and say, "I believe in the defense of my country." "If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons," said Ginrich.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum said Obama was not doing enough with regards to a Iran, and reminded Americans of his bill at the Senate that encouraged sanctioning Iran's nuclear program, which "our intelligence community said didn't exist and that the president of the United States, President Bush, opposed me for two years."

Rep. Ron Paul was the voice of dissent on the topic, arguing that not even Israel claims Iran has a nuclear weapon. "I think what we're doing is encouraging them to have a weapon, because they feel threatened. If you look at a map of Iran, we have 45 bases around their country, plus our submarines. The Iranians can't possibly attack anybody. And we're worrying about the possibility of one nuclear weapon. If you want to worry about nuclear weapons, worry about the nuclear weapons that were left over from the Soviet Union. They're still floating around. "

When the topic of expanding women's roles in the military came up, the Republican candidates turned it into an opportunity to slam Obama.

Romney said Obama's decisions regarding the U.S. military were "seriously awry." "This is a president who is shrinking our Navy, shrinking our Air Force, wants to shrink our active-duty personnel, is cutting our military budget by roughly a trillion dollars. The world is more dangerous, it is not safer," he said, pointing at Syria, the Arab Spring which "has become the Arab winter," Hezbollah in Latin America and Mexico, North Korea's nuclear development and Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

"The right course is to add ships to our Navy, to modernize and add aircraft to our Air Force, to add 100,000 troops to our active- duty personnel and to strengthen America's military," he said.

Gingrich questioned what defines today's war. "Anybody serving our country in uniform virtually anywhere in the world could be in danger at virtually any minute", he said. "The truck driver can get blown up by a bomb as readily as the infantryman. We live in an age when we have to genuinely worry about nuclear weapons going off in our own cities," he said, adding that all Americans are at more risk now than ever in U.S. history.

Paul said he does not want to see any American men and women at war. "What I fear is the draft coming back, because we're getting way overly involved. The wars we fight aren't defensive war; they're offensive war."

On the possibility of intervention in Syria, Senator Rick Santorum said "Syria is a puppet state of Iran. They are a threat not just to Israel, but they have been a complete destabilizing force within Lebanon, which is another problem for Israel, and Hezbollah."

Romney said that amid all the bad news coming from the Middle East, a troubled Syrian regime is one piece of good news. "The key ally of Iran, Syria, has a leader that's in real trouble. And we ought to grab a hold of that like it's the best thing we've ever seen," said Romney, adding that the U.S. needs to work with the Alwaites, the ethnic group of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to show them they have a future without Assad. In addition, said Romney, the U.S. needs to work with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to support the Syrian rebels with weaponry. "If we can turn Syria and Lebanon away from Iran, we finally have the capacity to get Iran to pull back. And we can, at that point, with crippling sanctions and a very clear statement that military action is an action that will be taken if they pursue nuclear weaponry. That can change the course of world history."