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No 'chest beating' on Iran, but Obama to issue challenge, sources say

By Kevin Bohn, CNN Senior Producer
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
President Obama is visiting the Middle East later this month.
President Obama is visiting the Middle East later this month.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama says he will not engage in "chest beating" on Iran
  • President preparing to go to Mideast in two weeks, including stop in Israel
  • Obama remarks came in meeting with Jewish American leaders at White House
  • Obama says he will not present his own Arab-Israeli peace plan on trip

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he will not engage in any "chest beating" over Iran's nuclear program, but plans to issue a "clear and direct" challenge to Tehran during his upcoming Middle East trip, according to sources familiar with his comments.

Obama said at a White House meeting with Jewish American leaders that he will still work toward a diplomatic resolution with Iran over its nuclear program, but repeated that no options are off the table, including military ones, one of the sources said.

The comments do not represent a change in the Obama administration's thinking, but come as the president prepares to travel in two weeks to the region where he is expected to be pressed over Iran by the Israeli government.

Separately, Obama told the group that he will not unveil his own Mideast peace plan when in Israel, saying such a move would be "premature," the sources said.

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The sources said Obama told the participants that doesn't mean the United States would not be in the middle of a "policy initiative" within the next year.

He told the group he was determined for a "just resolution" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said he thought that the prospects were "bleak," one participant told CNN.

While overseas, Obama will also visit the West Bank and Jordan, the White House said.

Obama was pressed at the meeting about why he didn't use tougher rhetoric regarding Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but the United States and other allies believe is intended for building a weapon.

Obama said he will work toward a diplomatic resolution and that he still intends to achieve one. He said he is not going to do something for "chest beating" just to show people he is tough, two sources said.

During the trip, Obama will issue what is called a "clear and direct" challenge to Iran and that he told the meeting "no options are off the table, including military options," one participant told CNN.

Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week forcefully admonished any attempts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

"Big nations can't bluff. And presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff and President Barack Obama is not bluffing," Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.

Obama reminded those at the White House meeting on Thursday that the Iranians are a proud people and to reach any agreement, the United States cannot humiliate them and needs to give them a way to back down.

He even quoted an old Chinese proverb about building a "golden bridge" for your opponent.

During the hour-long session, Obama said he had four aims for the trip: to underscore an iron clad commitment to Israel; to recognize that the bond is even more important with Mideast challenges becoming more prominent in Egypt, Syria and Iran; to directly challenge Iran on its nuclear ambitions and to work toward a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama indicated that he will criticize some of the past Palestinian moves on the peace process but also said he will challenge both sides not to undercut their opponents because there needs to be two strong players in order to reach a deal.

Separately, some of the two dozen people at the meeting had criticized the nomination of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when it was made because of past comments and views on Israel. That issue was among those that defined Hagel's politically charged Senate confirmation process. Hagel was not brought up at the session, the sources said.

The meeting, meant to preview the Mideast trip, was the first major session with such a large group of Jewish American leaders during Obama's second term.

"The president reiterated America's unshakeable support for Israel and thanked the leaders for (the) role they play in strengthening ties between the two nations. The president noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue, but is rather an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues -- including Iran, Syria, the situation in the region, and the peace process," a White House official told CNN.

Those in attendance included representatives of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, J Street and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Also there were: Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, former congressmen Robert Wexler and Mel Levine, former ambassador Ron Lauder, Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz and Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, according to one of the sources.

CNN's Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed to this story.

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