President Barack Obama said Iran is still “over a year or so” away from building a nuclear weapon and indicated the U.S. is ready to take military action if sanctions don’t force the regime to abandon its pursuit.
Obama, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 Television ahead of his first trip to Israel as president, said he still wants to pursue diplomacy to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying that would provide a “more lasting solution.”
The U.S. leader said that when he visits Israel next week he’ll reiterate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he’s ready to pursue any means of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons capability.
“When I say that all options are on the table, all options are on the table,” Obama said. “The United States obviously has significant capabilities.”
Differences over dealing with Iran have been a friction point between Obama and Netanyahu. The Israeli leader has warned that Iran is edging closer to building a bomb and that the regime in Tehran is using negotiations to stall for time. The Obama administration has repeatedly argued there is still a window for diplomacy and pressure to work.
Obama departs March 19 for a four-day trip to the Middle East with stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. He and Netanyahu also will discuss the civil war in Syria and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Administration officials have said they don’t expect any breakthrough in the peace process and that Obama won’t be bringing any new proposals to his meetings with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Obama said he’ll tell Abbas that trying “do an end-run around Israel” by pressing for recognition of a Palestinian state in international forums such as the United Nations “is not going to be successful.”
With Netanyahu, Obama said he’ll encourage the Israeli leader to help strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s moderate leadership. One way to do that, he said, was to look at the Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and asking whether it was “making it harder or easier for Palestinian moderates to sit down at the table.”
“It’s complicated; it’s difficult,” Obama said. “But I continue to believe that that’s the best and only path forward. How we get into those conversations, whether they can happen soon or whether there needs to be some further work done on the ground, that’s part of what I’ll explore when I get there.”
Administration officials said the timing of the trip -- coinciding with a new Israeli government and the beginning of Obama’s second term -- presents an opportunity for the U.S. president to discuss a broad range of issues with Netanyahu and other leaders in the region.
“There’s value in traveling precisely when there is a new government in Israel,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call yesterday. While “you don’t expect to close the deal” on any initiatives, the visit “can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line,” he said.
In the days leading up to the president’s trip, Iran has emerged as the dominant issue in talks with the Israeli leader.
Iran has announced that it’s moving ahead with plans to install 3,000 new-generation centrifuges at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility. Iran says its atomic program is for civilian energy and medical uses, and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency says it hasn’t detected any diversion of enriched uranium for possible military use.
The U.S. intends to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and “we’re going to pursue all avenues to make sure that that does not happen,” Obama said. “My Cabinet is prepared for a whole range of contingencies.”
Obama said that while it would take “over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon,” he doesn’t want to “cut it too close.”
The U.S. “commitment to Israel’s security is unbreakable,” he said. “Our goal here is to make sure that Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon that could threaten Israel or could trigger an arms race in the region.”
Iran was the No. 6 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in February, and any rise in tensions would hit oil markets. Crude oil for April delivery rose 51 cents to settle yesterday at $93.03 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures are up 1.4 percent this year.
Obama also signaled he has no immediate plans to revisit the possible release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, as Israeli leaders have been pressing for him to be freed. Pollard, an American intelligence analyst, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified information to Israel.
“This is an individual who committed a very serious crime here in the United States,” Obama said. “He has been serving his time. There is a justice system that allows for periodic review and the potential for him ultimately being released. And the way I, as President, function here is to try to make sure that I’m following the basic procedures and rules of that review.”
Obama and Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship over the last several years. Netanyahu has been critical of the U.S. president’s stance toward Iran and he heaped praise on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during last year’s U.S. elections. Still, Obama downplayed tensions.
“We’ve got a terrific, businesslike relationship,” Obama said. “He is very blunt with me about his views on issues and I’m very blunt with him about my views on issues. And we get stuff done. We could not have coordinated militarily or on the intelligence side had it not been for our capacity to work together.”