President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Friday by telephone, ending the call with a common pledge to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but no apparent consensus on a specific timeline to do so.
A few hours later, Republican nominee Mitt Romney spoke by phone with Netanyahu, his one-time consulting colleague and a friend since the 1970s. After the call, Romney said that he does not believe military force will have to be used to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
The dueling calls again edged Israel and Iran into the frame of the presidential election, and they gave both candidates an opportunity to outline their positions on an crucial security issue.
According to a summary of the roughly 20-minute call released by the White House, Obama and Netanyahu “underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The statement also said the leaders, who have clashed over the now-dormant Palestinian peace process but rarely over Israeli security concerns, “agreed to continue their regular consultations on this issue going forward.”
The call came a day after Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran’s nuclear program would produce enough enriched uranium to make a weapon by spring or summer.
Using a cartoon image of a bomb to make his point, Netanyahu urged world leaders to present Iran with a “red line” that, if crossed, would result in a military strike.
While delivered on a global stage, Netanyahu’s address was also aimed at Obama, who in his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday spelled out the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the region and beyond.
Although the president reiterated his position that the United States will do “what we must” to prevent that from happening, Obama declined to specify what steps by Iran would trigger a military operation.
Iran denies that it is enriching uranium for a weapon, but Israel and the United States do not believe the claim. The Israeli government has an undeclared nuclear arsenal itself, which Iran and others this week called for it to acknowledge.
According to the White House summary of Friday’s call, Netanyahu “welcomed President Obama’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly.”
The leaders spoke by phone because Obama, just six weeks from the election, declined to meet with any foreign leaders at the General Assembly this year. Netanyahu met Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Romney called Netanyahu during his drive to the airport after a campaign event in Wayne, Pa.
The Republican has criticized Obama for failing to curb Iran’s nuclear program. But the approach he has outlined — economic sanctions, a greater U.S. naval presence in the region and diplomatic isolation of Tehran— is largely consistent with the president’s policy.
Asked Friday whether he endorsed the timeline Netanyahu spelled out at the United Nations, Romney said, “We did not go into enough, into the kind of detail, that would define precisely where that red line would be.” He described the phone call as largely personal in nature rather than a detailed policy discussion.
Romney did describe Iran’s nuclear program as the “greatest national security threat that we face” and said he would explore military options “in the event they were necessary.”
“I do not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action,” Romney told reporters traveling with him. “I certainly hope we don’t have to. I can’t take that option off the table. It must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken.”
The White House statement appeared designed, in part, to decrease the focus on Iran and its nuclear program at a politically sensitive time for the president.
The one-paragraph summary released by the White House uses the phrase “regular consultations” twice.
“It’s obvious that harsh tones and rhetoric are not going to be helpful — that is quite clear,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Friday at the United Nations when asked about Netanyahu’s U.N. speech. “What is also clear is that Iran needs to prove to the international community that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.”
Rucker reported from Philadelphia and Bedford, Mass.