President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heading into their meeting today at the White House, are emphasizing agreement over how to confront Iran’s nuclear program, even as Obama asked Israel to help dial back “too much loose talk of war.”
Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S., Obama said yesterday that he takes “no options off the table” including a “military effort” to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the U.S. president said.
Israel has a “sovereign right to make its own decisions,” Obama also said, and “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Netanyahu, who was in Ottawa before heading to Washington, applauded Obama’s position that containment is not an option and said he “very much appreciated” Obama’s underscoring Israel’s right to self defense.
Netanyahu, who will address Aipac tonight following his meeting with Obama, didn’t comment on Obama’s position that more time is needed for international sanctions and diplomatic pressure to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who also addressed Aipac yesterday, said that at the Obama-Netanyahu meeting “I don’t expect that someone will get up and start giving dates - what time we will do this, what time we will do that - not us, and not them.” The discussion will be focused on process, Peres said in an interview broadcast today on Israel’s Army Radio.
Obama said premature talk of war may hurt Israeli and U.S. interests and help Iran by driving up the price of oil, which Iran exports.
Since the start of October, crude oil has risen 37 percent. Oil for April delivery gained as much as 59 cents to $107.29 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It traded at $106.66 at 8:01 a.m. London time. Brent oil may rise to $150 a barrel this year if diplomatic relations between Iran and the west worsen, Barclays Plc said in a March 1 report.
Obama and Netanyahu, who have a history of tense relations, are set to hold a late-morning meeting at the White House followed by lunch. They didn’t schedule a joint press conference, a common event for such visits.
The two leaders have been at odds since the start of Obama’s presidency. Soon after taking office, Obama pushed Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, in an effort to restart peace talks. Netanyahu has been approving more.
Last November, journalists at the Group of 20 summit in France overheard a Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussing Netanyahu. Obama acknowledged Sarkozy’s dislike for Netanyahu by saying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.” Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine published last week, said he and Netanyahu have a “very functional” relationship.
The U.S. and Israel see strategic value in a public posture that minimizes their differences even as Israel remains more concerned about running out of time to stop Iran from becoming nuclear-weapons capable, said Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration.
“It’s in the interests of both parties to show somewhat of a united front if part of the goal is to compel Iran to change its position,” said Kahl, who has said it is premature for military action against Iran.
That unity signals to Iran that it “needs to take the prospect of pressure and maybe even a military strike down the road seriously,” said Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, a policy group in Washington.
Kahl said while the U.S. and Israel are trying to “negotiate the gray” areas, “there is a fair amount of agreement between both sides.”
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the differences between Israel and the U.S. remain “profound.”
Parsi, whose nonpartisan organization advocates a diplomatic solution to the crisis, said Israel considers “nuclear capability” for Iran to be a “red line” that would bring a military strike, while Obama appears to draw the line later, at weaponization rather than capability.
Peace Process Overshadowed
Obama, in his speech, didn’t set out a definitive line in Iran’s nuclear program that would trigger a U.S. attack, while he did say his policy was to prevent the government in Tehran from getting a weapon.
Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research.
Whether or when to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program has replaced the Israel-Palestinian peace process as the dominant issue in Israel-U.S. relations.
The U.S. and the European Union tightened economic sanctions following a Nov. 8, 2011, report by United Nations inspectors that Iran’s nuclear research program may include pursuing the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Because of the sanctions, Obama said Iran is isolated and its economy ground to almost a halt last year.
Peres, addressing Aipac yesterday before Obama spoke, said there is no disagreement between Israel and the U.S. on the goal of stopping Iran’s from building nuclear arms.
“Our message is clear: Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon,” Peres said.
After Obama’s speech, Peres told him in a meeting that “your remarks to the effect that the U.S. opposes ‘containment’ of a nuclear Iran are very important for Israel, as is your statement that all options are on the table,” according to a statement from Peres’ office.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Israel’s Channel 2 television that “overall it was a very good speech” by Obama. “The point that we have to pay particular attention to is that here, Obama has declared ownership; Iran is an American problem, and we won’t allow it to go nuclear.”
The Iranians, he said, “need to pay very close attention to what was said here.”
Obama’s relationship with Israel and the threat posed by Iran also has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign. Three Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to deliver messages to the Aipac conference.
Obama said all parties should consider the “weightiness of these issues” and the stakes for both the U.S. and Israel. He warned that the approach in dealing with Iran must be deliberate.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Obama said. “Such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”