President Obama Plays Down Iran War Talk in Bid to Avert Israel Strike

President Barack Obama said there is a “window of opportunity” for diplomacy and sanctions to compel Iran to give up any effort to develop nuclear weapons, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. lawmakers those efforts won’t work.

Their divergent comments -- Obama at a news conference yesterday and Netanyahu on Capitol Hill -- highlighted the differences that persist between the two leaders over the need for military action against Iran a day after they presented a unified front at the White House.

Obama may have bought more time for diplomacy and sanctions by reassuring Netanyahu that a nuclear-armed Iran would be as great a threat to the U.S. as it would be to Israel, said current and former U.S. officials. Netanyahu, though, made it clear that Israel’s patience is limited and that he’s prepared to order an attack on Iran if it doesn’t abandon its suspected nuclear weapons development.

“We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu told the American Israel Political Action Committee March 5.

The meeting with Netanyahu was a high-stakes encounter for Obama, who’s under pressure in an election year to forestall military action while blunting attacks from Republicans who accuse him of providing tepid support to Israel. The U.S. and Europe have tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an effort to force it to end any weapons-related nuclear work and head off conflict and a possible nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region that holds more than half the world’s oil reserves.

Demands on Iran

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said yesterday that world powers are ready to resume talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear work.

Chinese, French, German, Russian, U.K. and U.S. diplomats are expected to issue a statement tomorrow, after it is cleared by leaders in their capitals, presenting Iran with demands intended to damp the international stand-off if fulfilled, according to three officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information isn’t public.

‘Red Lines’

“Neither a green light, nor a red light was given” from Obama to Netanyahu in their talks for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, an aide to the prime minister said today. “An additional element entered the discussion, and that is the question of not only what will be the price of Israeli action, but also the price of Israeli inaction,” said Liran Dan, Netanyahu’s director of communications, in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.

Obama and Netanyahu “share the same objective: that you can’t live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s former chief adviser on Iran, said in an interview. “Both have a preference for diplomatic means. The question is how much time you give diplomacy.”

More than three hours of talks at the White House March 5 didn’t set a deadline for diplomacy, and the two leaders didn’t discuss their respective “red lines” for military action against Iran, said U.S. and Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Obama yesterday stressed there’s a “window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.” While he told reporters at the White House he will do whatever is needed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Obama also warned that there could be dangerous consequences for the U.S. and Israel if military “action is taken prematurely.”

‘Zone of Immunity’

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials have warned that Iran may be only months away from reaching a “zone of immunity” where its nuclear activities in deep underground facilities would be invulnerable to Israeli air strikes.

“This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts,” Obama said, without explaining why he chose those time frames.

The European Union announced yesterday that the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany are prepared to restart stalled talks with Iran to achieve a “negotiated, long- term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” The EU set no deadlines for the start or conclusion of talks.

Netanyahu yesterday told U.S. lawmakers that he doesn’t think talks and sanctions will force Iran to back down, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who met with the Israeli leader.

Perils of Striking

Sandy Berger, who as national security adviser to President Bill Clinton discussed the Iranian nuclear issue with Netanyahu, said in an interview before the leaders met that Obama needed to talk to the Israeli leader about “the risks of a strike.” The perils, he said, include a violent backlash targeting Israel and the U.S., as well as “the effect on oil supply, spiking of oil prices, damage to the global economy, inflaming the region during the Arab Spring at a time when so much is in flux.”

Berger said he hoped the president was able to convince Netanyahu that “sanctions are beginning to have a serious impact in Iran” and may still force Iran into an acceptable negotiated settlement.

‘Loose Talk’

On March 4, Obama told Aipac, the largest pro-Israel group in the U.S., that “loose talk of war” is benefiting Iran, the second-largest crude producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, by driving up the price of oil.

Oil had risen 41 percent as of March 5 from a 12-month low on Oct. 4, partly on concerns of a possible war in the Middle East. Yesterday, after the EU offered to restart negotiations with Iran, crude dropped to a two-week low in New York. The Middle East is the source of 30 percent of the world’s crude.

Crude for April delivery rose 0.7 percent to $105.38 a barrel at 10:20 a.m. in London. Futures are up 6.7 percent this year.

Ross, now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that a return to negotiations must not simply buy time for the Persian Gulf nation. Ross said it’s his understanding that Israel’s leaders think any important concessions by Iran need “to happen before the end of this year.”

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence is classified said U.S. agencies monitor Iran’s nuclear activities and would be able detect any moves by Iran to build a nuclear weapon. The official said Iran would need about a year to create a weapon from the time it decided to do so, allowing a window for negotiations and sanctions to work, while preserving the option to strike if needed.

Self-Defense

In his address to Aipac, Obama emphasized that Israel has the sovereign right to do what it thinks it must to preserve its security. “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” he said.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office before his talks with Obama March 5, Netanyahu said his “supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

Netanyahu, who has criticized Obama’s position on Iran and the Palestinian peace process to American visitors, made a public show of unity. In Iran’s mind, “we are you and you are us. We’re together,” Netanyahu said at the White House.

More Clarity

“There’s more clarity now,” Israeli National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror told reporters. “Both sides know where the other is coming from.”

Obama needed to “reassure the Israelis that he’s open to a military option at some point, without giving the Israelis an ironclad guarantee that the U.S. will strike or green-lighting an Israeli military attack,” Aaron David Miller, who worked on Middle East policy in several U.S. administrations, said in an interview.

Miller, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, said Obama “probably gained a fair amount of time to continue to try sanctions, political pressure, even diplomacy.”

Two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said while surveillance of Iran’s nuclear program is good, it’s far from perfect. Neither the U.S. nor its allies know the intentions of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the officials said, because they’re known only to a small circle of insiders.

Limits of Surveillance

Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said March 5 the UN body “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions” of Iran’s program. While Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are under IAEA surveillance, the country has declined to open its military bases to full inspection. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research.

Since a Nov. 8 IAEA report cited “credible” intelligence suggesting possible military aspects of Iran’s program, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed an array of new sanctions, imperiling tens of billions of dollars of Iran’s annual revenue.

David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said differences between the U.S. and Israel include whether Iran must be stopped sooner or later -- before it has the technical capability to make a nuclear weapon, or before it starts building one.

“It seems to me we’ve not seen a narrowing of that gap,” he said.

In the longer term, any peaceful resolution of the issue will depend on whether and how quickly Iran’s leaders are willing to make meaningful concessions, said Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel while Netanyahu was prime minister in the late 1990s.

“The fact that Obama has taken the containment option off the table indicates that the choice is fast becoming a binary one for U.S. policy -- either Iran gives up its bomb-making capabilities or it will sooner or later be bombed,” Indyk, who is director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington, said in an interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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