Netanyahu appears willing to give Obama more time on Iran

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Despite different assessments of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday appeared to give President Barack Obama more time to pursue a diplomatic resolution while reaffirming Israel’s right to take unilateral military action.

Speaking to the main pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group hours after holding Oval Office talks with Obama, Netanyahu acknowledged that sanctions are beginning to seriously hurt Iran’s economy, but he added that they have yet to compel Iran to halt a uranium enrichment program that is widely suspected of secretly being for developing nuclear weapons.

“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program has continued to march forward. Israel has waited ... for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu declared to some 13,000 cheering attendees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. “As prime minister of Israel I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

At the same time, Netanyahu sought to assure the audience _ including more than half the members of Congress _ that there are no differences between him and Obama over Iran policy, emphasizing that the U.S. president has put “all options on the table,” which include military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

“Well, Israel has the same policy,” he declared, an assertion that could take some of the edge off U.S.-Israeli relations as well as Republican charges that Obama’s approach hasn’t been tough enough.

Netanyahu’s comments indicated that he is prepared to give some more time to Obama to pursue tighter sanctions and a diplomatic deal that halts the program that Iran claims is for peaceful purposes, but that the United States, Israel, and other powers charge is secretly developing the capability to build nuclear warheads.

Obama and Netanyahu spent two hours in discussions dominated by the Iran nuclear crisis.

Their meeting coincided with a new report by a former U.N. nuclear inspector that said that Iran is unlikely to build a warhead this year. But the report added that Iran is already capable of building a crude bomb, and that only a “negotiated long-term diplomatic resolution” could permanently ensure that it remains in compliance with the international treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear arms.

Speaking with reporters before their talks, Obama and Netanyahu were more relaxed with each other compared to their last meeting, in May 2011, when Obama sat silently as Netanyahu sternly rejected a U.S. plan to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Yet Netanyahu left no doubt about the seriousness of Monday’s discussions. Looking directly at Obama, he reiterated Israel’s right to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which the Jewish state _ which has an estimated several hundred nuclear warheads of its own that it refuses to officially acknowledge _ views as an existential threat.

He didn’t once refer to international or U.S. sanctions aimed at compelling Iran to comply with U.N. demands to suspend uranium enrichment _ which produces fuel for reactors and bombs _ or European-led diplomatic efforts aimed at trading a halt to the program for financial and other incentives.

“Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state: to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that’s why my supreme responsibility is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

Addressing the AIPAC conference on Sunday, Obama insisted that he wouldn’t hesitate to use force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also said that he is not pursuing a containment policy, the approach the United States used for decades to check the influence of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union.

As he and Netanyahu sat next to each other Monday, Obama repeated those positions, as well as U.S. concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an arms race in an oil-rich Middle East, and raise the possibility of Tehran slipping a warhead to a terrorist group.

“That's why we have worked so diligently to set up the most crippling sanctions ever with respect to Iran,” Obama said. “We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians' regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far.”

Netanyahu told Obama that Iran sees no difference between the United States and Israel.

“For them, you are the Great Satan, we’re the Little Satan. For them we are you and you are us,” he said.

In his evening address, Netanyahu ridiculed Iran’s contention that it is enriching uranium to produce fuel for a research reactor that it uses to produce isotopes for medicinal purposes.

Armed with a nuclear arsenal, he said, Iran would be able to control the flow _ and the price _ of Persian Gulf oil, use its “nuclear umbrella” to embolden Islamic terrorist groups, and trigger a regional arms race.

“The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off,” he said.

It was clear before their White House meeting, however, that Obama sees military force as a last option, concerned that striking Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t terminate its program, and will trigger Iranian retaliation, such as blockading petroleum shipments from the Persian Gulf, which would deal a new blow to the still-shaky global economy.

He said that he would continue working “on the diplomatic front” to tighten sanctions that the U.S. says are beginning to seriously hurt, creating a hard currency shortage that has interrupted the oil sales on which the Iranian economy depends and forcing a devaluation of Iran’s currency.

A senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the talks, said the U.S. assessment is that Iran doesn’t yet have the ability to assemble a warhead. Tehran would first have to expel U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors before proceeding, which would alert the international community, he said.

The Israelis, however, fear that Iran is entering a “zone of immunity” beyond which its nuclear facilities will be too heavily defended for Israel to destroy, and they think that only the U.S. military has the ability to take them out.

“The U.S. sees that we have time, we have superior military capabilities, we have time to see if sanctions play themselves out,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. “The Israeli fear is that you might not know if they convert” their facilities from producing low-enriched uranium to producing the highly enriched uranium required for a bomb.

In his new report, former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that Iran already has the ability to make highly enriched uranium and a crude nuclear weapon.

But, the report continued, sanctions, covert intelligence operations and intense international scrutiny of the Iranian program have dissuaded Tehran from building a warhead, and it is “unlikely” to do so in 2012 “in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so.”

Only “a negotiated long-term resolution” can ensure that Iran doesn’t build nuclear weapons, the report said. It called for a combination of tougher sanctions and “creative diplomatic methods of achieving a compromise,” such as reviving a proposal to freeze sanctions in return for Iran freezing uranium enrichment.

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