President Barack Obama said he assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. will demand Iran follow conciliatory words with verifiable action in the standoff over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and that he hasn’t excluded using military force.
“It is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient,” Obama said at the conclusion of a White House meeting with Netanyahu today. “We take no options off the table, including military options.”
The Israeli leader has pushed the U.S. to keep up pressure on Iran. Recent statements from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani must be matched by “real actions” that lead to the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, he said.
“Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu met with Obama in Washington a day before he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the forum where a year ago he said Israel can’t abide Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about Iran’s motives for reaching out to Obama and the West, and urged U.S. and international leaders not to be fooled.
During his visit to the UN in New York last week, Rouhani expressed interest in renewed discussions that might ease the international sanctions imposed to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is seeking to do so, saying its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes.
The result of recent overtures from Rouhani was a Sept. 27 conversation with Obama, the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter since before Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
“The Iranians are now prepared it appears to negotiate,” Obama said today. “We have to test diplomacy.”
He said it is “imperative” that Iran not get a nuclear weapon, a step that would destabilize the Middle East and be a threat to global security.
The prospect of a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iran, holder of the world’s fourth-biggest proven oil reserves, helped bring down crude prices. West Texas Intermediate crude for November delivery decreased $1.06, or 1 percent, to $101.81 a barrel at 12:54 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have slid 5.4 percent this month.
Obama and Netanyahu sought to demonstrate a unified stance in the approach to possible negotiations with the Iranian government.
Obama’s relations with Netanyahu have been strengthened in the past year with improved cooperation, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who advises Netanyahu on Israeli-U.S. relations.
“The relationship between Prime Minster Netanyahu and President Obama is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “The start of peace talks with the Palestinians has helped Netanyahu’s position vis-a-vis the White House, and that only improves when members of his cabinet or party criticize him on the negotiations.
‘‘Both Israel and the U.S. have come to understand that they have so much in common on the real issues in the Middle East,’’ he said. ‘‘The tension we saw a few years ago between the two leaders was before the Syrian situation, the Egyptian situation, and both sides understand now they need each other more.’’
A year ago, Netanyahu stood before the UN General Assembly displaying a cartoon diagram of a bomb after openly disagreeing with the Obama administration about how to curb Iran’s nuclear program. He said there were ‘‘red lines’’ that would trigger military action if Iran crossed them.
In the months that followed, Obama and Netanyahu each won re-election and set about improving their relationship. When Obama traveled to Israel in March, the two men embraced and made mutually supportive public statements.
Netanyahu has said he was ‘‘absolutely convinced’’ of Obama’s resolve to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
Today he told Obama he wanted to express ‘‘my appreciation to you for the enormous work that’s been done to have a sanctions regime in place to thwart Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. I believe that it’s the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table.”
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center in Washington and Middle East adviser to several U.S. administrations, said while Rouhani’s outreach does create some new tension, the Obama-Netanyahu visit is “a reflection of a much-improved relationship between the two” and “by and large, I think this relationship has gotten over its dysfunctional stage.”
Rouhani threatens Netanyahu’s “internal analysis and his public narrative about evil mullahs. But those worries aside, the odds of a U.S. deal with the mullahs that undercuts Israel on the nuclear issue and leaves them unhappy, nervous and out in the cold are slim to none. No matter how desperate or intrigued Obama may be for a deal with Iran, he can’t and won’t sacrifice the Israelis on the altar of that expediency,” he said.
Netanyahu’s tough response to Rouhani’s overtures has drawn some criticism internationally and within Israel, even from members of his government. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second-biggest faction in Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, said the prime minister’s decision to have the Israeli UN delegation walk out on Rouhani’s General Assembly speech made Israel look like “a serial refuser of negotiations, as being not interested in solutions on the road to peace.”
Danny Ayalon, a former deputy foreign minister and ex-ambassador to the U.S., said, “Israel’s main concern is a repetition of the U.S. experience with North Korea.”
“During the 1990s, North Korea was in the same position as Iran now, and the U.S. offered them a path of nuclear disarmament, allowing them only civilian nuclear use,” he said. “And despite this, the North Koreans continued to develop a bomb and eventually tested it. So we’ve been here before.”