Netanyahu presses Obama on Iran nuclear program as talks reopen

March 6, 2012

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in the Oval Office on Monday before Netanyahu took to the stage at AIPAC to rally support for action against the Iranian nuclear program. As Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick reported:

President Obama sought to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that he would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but their meeting concluded with U.S. officials unsure whether the president had succeeded in persuading the Israelis to hold off on unilateral military action.

The leaders met for about two hours in the Oval Office at a crucial juncture in Obama’s effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and win the trust of Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East. Israeli officials afterward called the talks “positive” and said both sides agreed on the need to continue economic and political pressure on Iran.

But hours after the meeting, Netanyahu renewed his warning that time for diplomacy was running out. In a fiery speech to a Jewish American advocacy group, he said recent economic sanctions had not slowed Iran’s march to nuclear-weapons capability.

“None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington. “As prime minister of Israel, I will never allow my people to live in the shadow of annihilation.”

At the White House meeting, Obama made clear to Netanyahu that his policy is not to contain an Iranian nuclear arsenal but to prevent Iran’s leaders from developing one, administration officials said. In making his case for diplomacy over a military strike, Obama also assured Netanyahu that Israel has the right to act in its own national security interests.

“Our assessment is that they have not made a decision,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “While I can’t say for sure that we bought time, I think they certainly feel more assured about our intentions. They can say and feel that the ball had moved forward in that respect.”

On Tuesday, a group of countries including the U.S. known as the ‘P5 plus 1’ reopened talks with Iran over its nuclear program. As Joby Warrick and Thomas Erdbrink explained:

The United States and five other countries have agreed to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the European Union informed Iranian officials Tuesday, a development that rekindled hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

“I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue,” E.U. chief diplomat Catherine Ashton announced in a statement broadcast from the alliance’s Brussels headquarters. “We hope that Iran will now enter a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress.”

But Ashton warned in a letter to the Iranians that they must “engage seriously and without preconditions,” wording that reflected Western concerns that Iran may seek to use negotiations to divide its adversaries and buy more time to build up its enriched uranium stockpile.

“Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” Ashton wrote in the letter to Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

The negotiations between Iran and the bloc dubbed the “P5-plus-1” — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — would resume at a “mutually convenient time and date,” Ashton said. The last talks with Iran, in January 2011, ended in deadlock.

The decision to resume talks came hours after Iran announced plans to open a key military base to nuclear inspectors and seeks a new date for proposed talks with world powers on its nuclear program, Iranian state television reported Tuesday.

For some, the speeches given this week at the AIPAC annual policy forum are reminders of the lead-up to the 2003 war with Iraq. As Dana Milbank wrote:

It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2003 in the capital. Nine years ago this month, there was a similar feeling of inevitability — that despite President George W. Bush’s frequent insistence that “war is my last choice,” war in Iraq was coming. Now Israel is moving toward a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program, and American leaders are coming before AIPAC this week to give their blessings.

“The president has said he doesn’t bluff and neither can we in Congress,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a pro-Israel hawk serving his final year in the Senate. “The Iranian regime must hear a message from us and we must state it loud and clear: Either you peacefully negotiate an end to your illicit nuclear activities or they will be ended for you by military attack.”

The lights went up and thousands of conference attendees leapt to their feet.

As always, there are the ritual affirmations of solidarity with the Jewish state, and the usual shows of lobbying might (“largest gala ever!”). But there is little talk about the Palestinian conflict at the AIPAC gathering this year, and the usual domestic political chatter about which side is more pro-Israel has been eclipsed by a shared sense that war is coming — and probably soon. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, told the crowd that “time is running out quickly.”

More from The Washington Post

The impact of oil sanctions on Iran

Fact Checker: Mitt Romney gets silly on Iran

Sen. Levin after meeting with Netanyahu: Israeli attack likely if Iran doesn’t stand down

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