Obama: ‘Real differences’ with Netanyahu over Iran

President also implies prime minister was out of line in seeking White House visit during upcoming trip to address Congress

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands following a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, February 9, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands following a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, February 9, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Saul Loeb)

US President Barack Obama said Monday he has “very real differences” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of nuclear negotiations with Iran, as well as the question of new sanctions on Tehran.

Obama stressed at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington, DC, that Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and others involved in the talks all agree that more sanctions wouldn’t make sense at this point.

“I don’t want to be coy,” Obama said. “The prime minister and I have a very real difference around Iran, around sanctions.”

He said Merkel and Cameron and he agree “that it does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they’re about to be complete. And we should play that out.” If a deal can be done, it should be embraced, Obama said. If not, he said, he’d be “the first to work” with Congress on more sanctions. “But what’s the rush? Unless your view is that it’s not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn’t even be tested. And that I cannot agree with,” said Obama.

If a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved, the options “are narrow and they’re not attractive. From the perspective of US interests, and I believe from the perspective of Israel’s interests, although I can’t speak obviously for the Israeli government, it is far better if we can get a diplomatic solution. So there are real differences substantively, but that’s separate and apart from the whole issue of Mr. Netanyahu coming to Washington.”

Obama defended his recent decision not to meet with Netanyahu during the prime minister’s upcoming Washington visit, which is scheduled to take place shortly before the Israeli elections, and implied the Israeli prime minister was out of line in having sought a meeting.

“We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections, two weeks before their elections,” the US president said.

“As much as I love Angela [Merkel], if she were two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House, and I suspect she would not have asked for one,” Obama said, the audience responding with a round of laughter.

“So some of this just has to do with how we do business,” Obama added. “I think it’s important for us to maintain these protocols because the US-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party. This isn’t a relationship founded on an affinity between the Labor Party and the Democratic Party, or Likud and the Republican Party. This is the US-Israeli relationship that extends beyond parties. It has to do with that unbreakable bond that we feel and our commitment to Israel’s security and the shared values that we have. The way to preserve that is to ensure that it doesn’t get clouded by what could be perceived as partisan politics…. That’s something we have to guard against.”

Netanyahu plans to address the US Congress over his concerns regarding the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. The possibility of an agreement with Iran prompted strong words Sunday from the Israeli leader, who told the weekly cabinet meeting that “we will do everything to thwart a bad and dangerous deal that will cast a dark cloud on the future of the state of Israel and its security.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 25, 2015. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 25, 2015. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Obama, for his part, said Monday there was no reason to extend nuclear talks with Iran once again, stressing the question now was whether Tehran actually wanted an agreement.

“I don’t see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “The issues have been clarified, gaps have been narrowed, the Iranians have abided by the agreement,” he added.

Obama said the Iranian nuclear efforts have been “reversed,” adding that the international community was therefore in a “better position than before the interim program was set up.” The president was referring to an interim agreement with Tehran ahead of a final nuclear deal.

“The issues now are sufficiently narrowed and sufficiently clarified where we’re at the point where they need to make a decision,” he added.

The president said that the group known as the P5+1 — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States — is set to present Iran with a deal that would allow for them to become a peaceful nuclear power, but at the same time would give the international community “absolute assurance, that is verifiable, that they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

Obama hailed the cohesion among the P5+1, including the constructive role of Russia and China.

With an approaching deadline on reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran, Iranian officials on Sunday signaled a willingness to come to an agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling a gathering of the world’s top diplomats and defense officials that “this is the opportunity.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) in Geneva, January 14, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Rick Wilking/Pool)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) in Geneva, January 14, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Rick Wilking/Pool)

Both Iran and the P5+1 are under increasing pressure ahead of two deadlines: to agree on main points by late March, and to reach a comprehensive deal by June 30.

Zarif said that now was the window of opportunity to come up with a final deal. He met individually at the Munich security conference with each country involved — except France, which was scheduled later Sunday.

Following a 90-minute morning meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, their second meeting on the sidelines of the conference, Zarif said he felt that progress had been made in the past months and suggested it would be unproductive to further extend negotiations.

Asked about Israel’s fears that Iran’s program is a threat to its existence, Zarif said Israel used a “hypothetical Iranian threat” as a “smokescreen” for what he called atrocities against Palestinians and others in the region, Reuters reported Sunday.

Iran says its program is solely for energy production and medical research purposes. It has agreed to some restrictions in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from US economic sanctions.

Adiv Sterman and AFP contributed to this report. 

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