Obama: Despite Israel’s worries, U.S. will pursue Iranian opening

Jonathan S. Landay

President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States must test “in good faith” Iran’s readiness to negotiate a settlement to the feud over its nuclear program, even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged that tough sanctions – and the threat of military force – be maintained against Tehran and intensified if necessary.

After talks at the White House, Obama and Netanyahu both reiterated that Iran can’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, but the bulk of their comments illustrated the gap in how they view an unprecedented outreach to the West by Iran’s new government that was capped on Friday by a historic telephone call between Obama and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.

Speaking to reporters as he sat beside Netanyahu, Obama emphasized that Rouhani’s government be given a chance to prove that it is prepared to hold serious talks on its nuclear program after years of stalemate. The Israeli leader – who has derided the Iranian diplomatic offensive as “sweet talk and a blitz of smiles” – conveyed a conviction of total mistrust.

“We have to test diplomacy,” Obama said. “We have to see if, in fact, they (Iran) 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.”

Obama stressed, however, that Iran will have to take concrete actions to assure the world that it is not developing nuclear weapons before it can receive relief from a raft of tough sanctions that are choking its economy. “We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed. They will not be easy,” he said.

Obama credited the sanctions for pushing Iran to seek a reopening of negotiations on its nuclear program with world powers, which stalled in April while Rouhani’s obstreperous predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was still in power.

In contrast, Netanyahu said that sanctions and U.S. and Israeli threats to use military force must remain in place until the talks conclude successfully. That approach would rule out a phased removal of the measures that most experts consider the most promising avenue to an accord.

“I believe that it’s the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table,” Netanyahu said. “I also believe that for diplomacy to work, those pressures must be kept in place. And I think they should not be lessened until there is verifiable success.”

“In fact, it is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened.”

Netanyahu has long predicted that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapon, but the dates of those predictions have slipped repeatedly. There currently is no proof that Iran is building a nuclear warhead. U.S. intelligence officials contend that Iran halted its bomb program in late 2003 but is working to have the infrastructure in place to quickly reactivate one if a decision is ever made to do so.

Iran has defied multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt the enrichment of uranium, the process that produces fuel for power generation and nuclear warheads, and it has continued to develop and install advanced centrifuges, the high-speed spinning machines in which uranium is enriched. Iran also has for several years refused to answer questions about evidence that it researched a nuclear warhead for delivery by ballistic missile.

Tehran insists that its program – which it hid from international inspectors for 18 years – is strictly for peaceful purposes and contends that it has the right to continue enrichment as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Last week, Obama acknowledged that Iran does have the right to a peaceful nuclear program.

White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated after the Obama-Netanyahu talks that the United States was not going to follow the Israeli leader’s recommendation on sanctions.

“We have steadily over the past five years strengthened and intensified with our partners around the world the sanctions regime against Iran,” said Carney. “I think right now we’re exploring the possibility that Iran is serious about resolving this challenge, and we want to do that.”

Obama and Netanyahu met just three days after the 15-minute telephone conversation between Obama and Rouhani. It was the first direct conversation between American and Iranian leaders since diplomatic relations were severed in 1980 and came one day after Iran agreed with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to resume negotiations on its nuclear program in Geneva on Oct. 15-16.

Netanyahu, who on Tuesday is to be the last world leader to address the weeklong opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, appears to be facing an uphill fight to convince the world that what he has called Rouhani’s “smile campaign” really is aimed at buying time for Iran to amass enough enriched uranium to produce a warhead.

A CNN/ORC International poll published Monday found that 87 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans support negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. The survey of 803 adults was conducted over Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday, meanwhile, a former Israeli Defense Force intelligence chief published an open memo in which he urged Netanyahu to recognize that an imperfect deal was better for Israel’s security than the status quo.

“It is important to define an agreement that even if containing a certain risk that Iran could break out to military nuclear capability either under or in violation of the deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is likely leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it,” retired Air Force Gen. Amos Yadlin wrote in the memo published by the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli policy institute affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

By Jonathan S. Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau