WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama assured Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday that the US remains committed to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, is keeping the military option on the table, and will not reduce sanctions unless or until it is clear that Iran is taking verifiable actions to match its purported willingness for progress.
Netanyahu, for his part, told the president he appreciated the reiteration of that commitment to stop Iran, and advised that “sanctions should be strengthened” if Iran continues to move ahead toward the bomb. Significantly, Netanyahu demanded the full dismantling of Iran’s “military nuclear” capacity, and made plain that he did not believe President Hasan Rouhani’s assurances that Iran constituted no threat to other nations. Iran, Netanyahu told Obama in their joint media appearance at the Oval Office, remains bent on the destruction of Israel.
The two leaders, who spoke to the media after over an hour of talks, gave the impression of being at ease with each other and closely coordinated. They shook hands more than once; Obama patted Netanyahu on the arm at times; and the Israeli prime minister smiled warmly at the president.
Plainly, Netanyahu did not want to be perceived as an intransigent leader blocking any chance of a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff. Plainly, too, he was gratified to hear Obama stress that the option of military intervention to thwart Iran remains on the table — something the US president did not cite in a specific Iranian context during his speech at the UN General Assembly last week.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu highlighted that, despite its moderate rhetoric, “Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction. So for Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program… The bottom line,” he repeated, “is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program.”
Obama, who said the US-Israel alliance and the US commitment to Israel’s security were “stronger than ever,” said he had to “test diplomacy” and approach Iran “in good faith,” but that the US was entering negotiations “very clear-eyed.”
Said Obama: “We take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America.”
He added: “Given the statements and actions from the Iranian regime in the past, the threats against Israel, the acts against Israel, it is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient; that we have to have actions that give the international community confidence that in fact they are meeting their international obligations fully and that they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon.” Iran would have to meet “the highest level of verification” before the international community could start “sanctions relief,” he added.
He also promised to consult closely with Israel as the contacts with Iran move forward.
It was imperative, for Israel and for world security, said Obama, that Iran not get the bomb. The US did not want a nuclear arms race in the most incendiary part of the world, he noted.
For his part, Netanyahu stressed to Obama that, for the US, “there is no better ally, more reliable, more stable, more democratic other than Israel in a very broad, dangerous” Middle East, and that “the most important challenge” was preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu did not dismiss the idea of attempting diplomacy, but he said it was “the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table.” If diplomacy is to work, he said, “those pressures must be kept in place. And I think they should not be lessened until there is verifiable success. And in fact, it is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened. It’s the combination, I believe, that has guided your policy and our policy so far,” he said. “A credible military threat and strong sanctions, I think, is still the only formula that can get a peaceful resolution of this problem.”
He said he appreciated Obama’s remarks “that Iran’s conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions — transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions.”
The two leaders also discussed the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, said by unnamed officials on both sides to have made little headway over the past two months, and the Russian-brokered initiative to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
On the Palestinian issue, Obama said he “commended” Netanyahu “for entering into good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian Authority,” and said the US goal was to facilitate an accord that led to “two states living side by side in peace and security. And we have a limited amount of time to achieve that goal, and I appreciate the prime minister’s courage in being willing to step forward on behalf of that goal.”
Netanyahu said he remained “committed to peace talks with the Palestinians.” For peace to endure, he said, “it must be based on Israel’s capacity to defend itself by itself. And I hope that we can achieve a historic transformation that will give a better future for us and our Palestinian neighbors, and who knows, one day with our other neighbors as well.”
On Syria, the president said, “We are both pleased that there is the possibility of finally getting chemical weapons stockpiles out of Syria, but I think we both share a deep concern that we have to be able to verify and enforce what has now been agreed to at the United Nations.”
He said the US continued “to have concerns about what has happened in Egypt, but we also are committed to a constructive relationship with Egypt, in part because of the important role that the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israeli peace has served not only for the stability and security of both those countries, but also for security in the region and US security.”
The White House meeting marked the first time the two leaders had sat together since Obama’s visit to Israel in March. More relevantly, it marked their first personal contact since Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Rouhani, spoke by telephone over the weekend. Israel was informed prior to the conversation, but not consulted on the content, Israeli sources said.
Netanyahu later met with Vice President Joe Biden. And afterward he headed over to the State Department for a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, before attending a farewell ceremony for outgoing Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren on Capitol Hill. Oren is being succeeded by Netanyahu’s former senior policy adviser Ron Dermer.
After meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry spoke to the prime minister’s concerns, saying, “I also want [Netanyahu] to know that, as we reach out to respond to Iran’s effort to purportedly change its relationship with the world, we do so very aware of and sensitive to the security needs of Israel and the demands for certainty and transparency and accountability in this process.”
In all Netanyahu’s meetings, Jerusalem’s concerns over the West’s apparent eagerness to engage with Iran were at the top of the agenda. Broadly speaking, Western powers have indicated a willingness to ease sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking industries if the regime limits its uranium enrichment and allows international inspectors access to its nuclear facilities to ensure its nuclear program has no military application. Kerry said Sunday that an agreement to resolve the nuclear standoff could be signed with three to six months and that Washington’s relationship with Tehran could “change dramatically for the better” if the Islamic Republic’s intentions turn out to be sincere.
While Jerusalem is exceedingly skeptical, and Netanyahu has urged the international community not to be fooled by Tehran’s diplomatic “smokescreen” as it speeds toward the bomb, the prime minister sought in Washington to discuss the substance of that engagement, in order to define the parameters of a possible deal. Netanyahu has previously listed four demands of Iran: that it halt uranium enrichment, remove already enriched material, close the Fordo nuclear facility, and discontinue the plutonium track in Arak.
While Netanyahu was in DC, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin stayed in New York for meetings with several foreign ministers.
On Sunday, Netanyahu held talks with Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird. Canada has traditionally been one of Israel’s staunchest allies and strongest supporters on the international stage.
He also met with the foreign minister of Turkmenistan, Rashid Meredov. Israel’s diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan, a mostly Muslim country that borders Iran, date back to 1992, yet Shemi Tzur became Israel’s first resident ambassador in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, less than half a year ago.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu, who was also accompanied to the US by Home Front Defense and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, will be the last speaker to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York. After his speech, he will meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A meeting with officials from the Jewish Federations of North America is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, after which the prime minister was originally scheduled to return to Israel. But on Sunday night, he decided to extend his stay in New York by one day, “to give interviews and briefings to the international press,” his office said.