Obama to Netanyahu: US entering Iran talks with clear eyes
During Washington meeting, prime minister urges Obama to step up economic pressure on Iran • Obama offers no public assurances on future of American sanctions but commends Netanyahu for entering into "good-faith negotiations" with the Palestinians.
News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged U.S. President Barack Obama to step up sanctions on Iran if it pursues its nuclear drive, even while Tehran was exchanging overtures with Washington and restarting negotiations with the West.
Seeking to reassure Israel about the emerging U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, Obama said Tehran had to prove its sincerity with actions and insisted that Washington would not ease sanctions prematurely. He also reaffirmed U.S. readiness to resort to military action if all else fails.
Netanyahu visited the White House three days after Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani spoke by telephone in the highest-level contact between the countries in more than three decades. The call fueled hopes for a resolution of Iran's decade-old nuclear standoff with the West.
Signs of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement have rattled Israel, which accuses Iran of trying to buy time and get out from under tough international sanctions while it continues to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is working toward an atomic bomb.
Netanyahu, whose aides had said he would warn Obama in private not to trust Rouhani's charm offensive, signaled grudging acquiescence to Obama's outreach to Iran. But he appeared to demand that Tehran offer immediate concessions by suspending sensitive nuclear projects or else face even greater international pressure.
"It is Israel's firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened," Netanyahu told reporters before heading to New York.
During the Oval Office meeting, Netanyahu nevertheless signaled he would not block Obama's efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear impasse.
Obama, who has long called for a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute, said it was important to test the possible diplomatic opening. But he insisted that U.S. officials were "clear-eyed" as they enter talks with the Iranians.
"Our hope is that we can resolve this diplomatically," Obama said. "But as president of the United States, as I've said before and I will repeat, that we take no options off the table, including military options."
The president did not offer Netanyahu any public assurances about the future of the American sanctions, which have resulted in skyrocketing inflation and unemployment in Iran. But he credited the penalties with pushing Rouhani to seek a nuclear deal in exchange for economic relief.
The sudden prospect of a thaw between the U.S. and Iran has threatened to further strain the often-tense ties between Obama and Netanyahu. While the relationship has improved somewhat in recent months, Netanyahu has long been skeptical of Obama's preference for negotiating with Iran and has repeatedly pressed his U.S. counterpart to toughen his threats of military action should Tehran get close to producing a nuclear weapon.
Ahead of his visit to the U.S., Netanyahu made a series of derisive remarks about Rouhani's efforts to woo Obama and vowed to "tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles."
But the Israeli leader was publicly more subdued while sitting side-by-side with Obama at the White House. He thanked the U.S. president for his efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program and for calling on Rouhani to back up his words with actions. And in a possible sign of moderation, Netanyahu repeatedly said Iran must give up its "military" nuclear program, raising the possibility that Israel might be open to tolerating limited nuclear activities by Iran.
In the past, Netanyahu has said that Iran must halt all enrichment of uranium, a process that can have both military and civilian uses.
Netanyahu was expected to bring intelligence with him to Washington that Iran was on the cusp of achieving the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. He is also expected to argue that Iran is nearing nuclear weapon capabilities when he addresses the General Assembly on Tuesday.
Obama and Rouhani both addressed the U.N. last week. Their overlapping trips to New York, combined with an exchange of letters ahead of their arrival, led to speculation that the two would meet face-to-face. But U.S. officials said the Iranians told them an in-person meeting would be "too complicated."
However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did hold a one-on-one meeting in New York, setting the stage for Friday's phone call between the leaders.
A series of other pressing regional matters, including Syria and Middle East peace efforts, were also on the agenda Monday during the talks between Obama and Netanyahu. The leaders last met in person in March when Obama made his first trip to Israel as president.
Obama's visit helped lay the groundwork for a new round of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, the prospect of an elusive breakthrough seems as slim as ever.
The president commended Netanyahu for entering into "good-faith negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli leader said he remains committed to a peace accord. Netanyahu also expressed hope that a breakthrough with the Palestinians could lead to improved Israeli relations with other Arab nations.
On Syria, Obama said a recent international agreement to remove the Assad government's chemical weapons stockpiles was aimed not only at reducing the threat to Syrian civilians but also neighboring Israel.
The two leaders also discussed the tense political situation in Egypt. Obama said he continues to have concerns about the Egyptian military's ouster of its country's first democratically elected leader. But he said he was committed to maintaining a constructive relationship with Egypt, in part to help uphold its accord with Israel.
Later on Monday, Netanyahu went to Capitol Hill and met with small groups of lawmakers, several of whom insisted afterward that they would continue tough sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and push for even stricter measures in the coming months.
"Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security," Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the panel sat down with Netanyahu.
Ashton seeks 'best possible atmosphere' for upcoming talks with Iran
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, asked if new sanctions should be imposed on Iran as talks about its nuclear program unfold, said she wanted to go to the Oct. 15-16 talks with Iran in Geneva with "the best possible atmosphere."
"I am not in the business of telling Congress what to do," Ashton said in response to a question at a Washington think tank about whether Congress, or others, should impose additional sanctions on Iran.
"I would like to get to Geneva with the best possible atmosphere to really have these negotiations," she said, referring to Oct. 15-16 talks between Iran and six major powers: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
"And that means, in all sorts of ways, we need to show willingness and good faith to sit down and talk and expect the same in return," she added in an appearance at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.
"It may be, at the end of those two days, that we don't make progress. But it may be ... that we do," Ashton said, explaining that her general approach to a negotiation was to keep pressure on.
"Pressure is there for a reason: It's to bring people to the talks in order to try and make progress," she said.
"I want to go to Geneva with that best possible atmosphere," she added. "In any thinking about that, those who are making the law here or those in control of the negotiations from the U.S. end ... [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry and his team will have to think about how to make sure that it's the best possible atmosphere."