Israel’s Netanyahu presses U.S. to keep up Iran sanctions
WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged President Obama to stand firmly behind current sanctions against Iran and prepare to crack down harder if the Islamic Republic remains on a path toward developing nuclear weapons.
But the requests came wrapped in softer words of appreciation for Obama’s long-running fight against the Iranian nuclear program as the Israeli leader sought to project a solid relationship with the U.S. despite the president’s new attempt to engage Iran.
“I want 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,” Netanyahu told Obama as they sat before journalists in the Oval Office. “I believe that it’s the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that has brought Iran to the negotiating table.”
Obama in turn insisted that he maintains a healthy dose of skepticism even as his administration has sought to reach out to newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The U.S. enters into negotiations with Iran “very clear-eyed,” Obama told Netanyahu.
In tone and demeanor, the exchange was a far cry from Netanyahu’s Oval Office visit in the spring of 2011, when he lectured Obama on 4,000 years of Jewish history. White House advisors chafed when the Israeli leader initially seemed to support Obama’s Republican opponent in the presidential election the following year.
But with both Obama and Netanyahu since reelected, the pair have adopted a more cordial approach to working with each other. As Rouhani preaches a message of conciliation and seeks an easing of sanctions, Israel is at pains to nurture its relationship with the U.S. while warning of possible trickery by Iran.
For Netanyahu, that meant staying out of the spotlight last week when Iranian diplomacy was on full display at the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly. He did not publicly comment on Obama’s energetic pursuit of the chance to talk one on one with Rouhani.
The chat finally happened at week’s end as Rouhani was driven to the airport in New York and Obama called him on the phone in his limousine.
“The president’s position from the day he took office [is] that he was willing to have bilateral conversations with Iran if Iran were serious about resolving this issue,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
Aides to the president say they are encouraged by the conversations of the last week, involving the presidents as well as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, but don’t want to assess their progress too soon.
A meeting this month with the U.N. Security Council and Iran will be the “first step to see if Iran is prepared to back up words with concrete actions,” a senior administration official said.
In advance of those talks, Netanyahu this week is running a diplomatic effort of his own — a reality check of sorts. In his scheduled address at the U.N. on Tuesday, Netanyahu is expected to remind listeners of the steps Iran has taken toward developing a nuclear program and how close it is, in the Israeli assessment, to having the capacity to make a nuclear weapon.
In his meeting with Obama, Netanyahu spoke about Iran’s threats to destroy Israel.
Netanyahu told the president that “Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction” and laid out Israel’s bottom line: that Iran “fully dismantle its military nuclear program.” Netanyahu did not say in his public comments that Iran had to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure.
“The Israelis are very concerned about the charm offensive of President Rouhani,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The rhetoric from Iran has changed radically, but the substance may not have. That’s what worries them.”
On Monday, Netanyahu repeatedly expressed thanks and appreciation to Obama, calling him committed to the goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons
He also credited Obama’s support for a military threat and the pressure of sanctions for bringing Iran to the negotiating table — and publicly appealed to him to stay that course.
“It is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened,” Netanyahu said. “It’s the combination, I believe, that has guided your policy and our policy so far, that a good, credible military threat and strong sanctions is still the only formula that can get a peaceful resolution of this problem.”
Obama sought to assure Israel that Iran’s conciliatory words in recent weeks would not be enough to ease sanctions. Given Iran’s threats against Israel in the past, the president said, “it is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient.”
“We have to test diplomacy,” Obama said. “We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions, and we in good faith will approach them, indicating that it is our preference to resolve these issues diplomatically. But we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed.”
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