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Mitt Romney was forced to clarify his position on Israel’s right to conduct a possible military strike on Iran after a senior aide outlined a far more hawkish policy than that of the Obama administration.

Speaking ahead of Mr Romney’s keynote speech in Jerusalem, one of his senior advisers backed Israel’s right to conduct a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that [nuclear weapons] capability, the governor would respect that decision,” said Dan Senor, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Romney.

However, in comments on American television and in the Jerusalem speech, Mr Romney would only say on Sunday night that he supported Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

The contrasting messages came on the most sensitive day of Mr Romney’s six-day foreign trip. He hoped to make the case that Barack Obama, US president, has not been forceful enough in his dealing with Iran, while also trying to attract more votes from the American Jewish community, traditionally a bastion of Democratic support. He met Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and other Israeli leaders.

The visit to Israel follows a difficult couple of days for the Romney campaign in the UK, where the presumptive Republican nominee was rebuked by David Cameron, UK prime minister, after he pointed to problems in the preparations for the London Olympics.

Mr Senor’s remarks to travelling US journalists appeared to set out a much tougher approach than taken by the Obama administration, which has made clear repeatedly that it opposes a military strike on Iran for the time being. However, the Romney campaign later put out a statement from Mr Senor which struck a different note, saying that “Gov Romney recognises Israel’s right to defend itself”. The statement said that it was necessary to “employ any and all measures” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

In an interview on CBS, Mr Romney said: “I respect the right of Israel to defend itself.” When asked whether he would support a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, he said: “Because I’m on foreign soil, I don’t want to be creating new foreign policy for my country or in any way to distance myself from the foreign policy of our nation.”

Senior US officials – including Mr Obama – have stated on many occasions that the military option against Iran must remain “on the table” and that they support Israel’s right to defend itself. However, officials and analysts say that Washington has also put intense pressure on Israel for now to give more time to diplomacy and sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But Mr Obama has criticised the “bluster and big talk” that some Republicans adopted about a possible war with Iran.“This is not a game. There is nothing casual about it,” he said.

In his speech in Jerusalem, Mr Romney said it was his “fervent hope” that Iran’s nuclear programme could be stopped by the sanctions and diplomacy currently supported by the White House. But he added: “Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way. My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country.”

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