Obama tells Netanyahu he has 'clear eyes' on Iran
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
U.S. President Barack Obama. REUTERS PhotoPresident Barack Obama promised Benjamin Netanyahu Monday he would enter talks with Iran with clear eyes and demand verifiable actions, following the Israeli leader's warnings about "sweet talk" from Tehran.
Netanyahu and Obama held talks at the White House, days after Obama's historic call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spurred hopes for a breakthrough in the 30-year estrangement between Washington and the Islamic Republic.
Netanyahu warned that sanctions must be maintained against Tehran and even strengthened if necessary, and said the only outcome of diplomacy Israel would accept would be a dismantling of Iran's "military nuclear program." But in a sign of an easing of the once-tense relations between the leaders, Netanyahu was restrained in his public press appearance with Obama, after warning before he left home that he would speak out against the "sweet talk" and "charm offensive" coming from Tehran.
Obama told Netanyahu that he had no option but to "test" Iran's willingness to embrace diplomacy. Netanyahu warned that Iran was committed to Israel's destruction and that its words and actions should be judged with that in mind.
"The bottom line is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program," he said after over an hour of talks with Obama in the Oval Office.
The Israeli Prime Minister argued that economic sanctions must be kept in force through the evolving diplomacy with Iran, which resumes in mid October in Geneva.
"In fact, if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened," he said.
There is no current move to ease the crippling set of sanctions which Washington credits for damaging Iran's economy and forcing a rethink of diplomatic strategy on the nuclear program in Tehran.
But Iran would likely expect some reciprocal lifting of economic pressure in return for concessions during the negotiating process -- a demand that could cause Obama problems with both the Israelis and hawks on Capitol Hill in both parties.
Netanyahu also laid out a clear red line for Iran's nuclear program, which appears to have the potential at least to conflict with both Iran's aspirations and concessions other international powers may be prepared to make to Tehran.
"What's the bottom line? The bottom line ... is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program," Netanyahu said.
Obama has argued that Iran must take verifiable steps, and actions and not just words to prove it is meeting "international obligations fully and that they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon." But he has also said that after signing up to such a regime, Iran should retain the right to a "peaceful" civilian nuclear energy program.
Mindful of Netanyahu's political position, Obama told his guest it was specifically because of its past threats that Iran had to take actions that restored confidence in the international community.
"We have to test diplomacy," Obama said.
"But we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed. They will not be easy, and anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for." But Obama also indicated that despite soaring hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough, he would not withdraw the threat of force if diplomacy fails.
"We take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran," Obama said.
Israel has also warned it may be forced to take unilateral military action if diplomacy fails to ease what it sees as an existential threat from Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu's skepticism about Rouhani's motives is being followed and adopted by some of Obama's hawkish critics in Congress, who could complicate any eventual effort by the president to ease sanctions on Iran should a deal be reached.
While Iran was the dominant issue in the talks, Obama and Netanyahu also discussed the effort to identify and dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, and US-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Obama commended Netanyahu for his "courage" in entering "good faith" negotiations on the most divisive final status issues between the two sides.
Netanyahu said he was hoping the talks would produce a "historic transformation" in relations between Israel and its neighbors.
The talks were relaunched in late July after US Secretary of State John Kerry spent months shuttling back and forth to bring the two sides back to the table.
But few details have leaked after seven rounds of discussions, owing to Kerry's call for a strict news blackout to avoid poisoning the atmosphere.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned the United Nations last week that the talks offered the "last chance" for peace.
Netanyahu is expected to make his own address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.