Obama plays down Iran war talk in bid to avert Israel strike

Israel not convinced

Source: Bloomberg Source: Bloomberg

March 7 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said there is a “window of opportunity” for diplomacy and sanctions to compel Iran to give up any effort to develop nuclear weapons, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. lawmakers those efforts won’t work.

Their divergent comments -- Obama at a news conference yesterday and Netanyahu on Capitol Hill -- highlighted the differences that persist between the two leaders over the need for military action against Iran a day after they presented a unified front at the White House.

Obama may have bought more time for diplomacy and sanctions by reassuring Netanyahu that a nuclear-armed Iran would be as great a threat to the U.S. as it would be to Israel, said current and former U.S. officials. Netanyahu, though, made it clear that Israel’s patience is limited and that he’s prepared to order an attack on Iran if it doesn’t abandon its suspected nuclear weapons development.

“We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu told the American Israel Political Action Committee March 5.

The meeting with Netanyahu was a high-stakes encounter for Obama, who’s under pressure in an election year to forestall military action while blunting attacks from Republicans who accuse him of providing tepid support to Israel. The U.S. and Europe have tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an effort to force it to end any weapons-related nuclear work and head off conflict and a possible nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region that holds more than half the world’s oil reserves.

Demands on Iran

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said yesterday that world powers are ready to resume talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear work.

Chinese, French, German, Russian, U.K. and U.S. diplomats are expected to issue a statement tomorrow, after it is cleared by leaders in their capitals, presenting Iran with demands intended to damp the international stand-off if fulfilled, according to three officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information isn’t public.

‘Red Lines’

“Neither a green light, nor a red light was given” from Obama to Netanyahu in their talks for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, an aide to the prime minister said today. “An additional element entered the discussion, and that is the question of not only what will be the price of Israeli action, but also the price of Israeli inaction,” said Liran Dan, Netanyahu’s director of communications, in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.

Obama and Netanyahu “share the same objective: that you can’t live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s former chief adviser on Iran, said in an interview. “Both have a preference for diplomatic means. The question is how much time you give diplomacy.”

More than three hours of talks at the White House March 5 didn’t set a deadline for diplomacy, and the two leaders didn’t discuss their respective “red lines” for military action against Iran, said U.S. and Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Obama yesterday stressed there’s a “window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.” While he told reporters at the White House he will do whatever is needed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Obama also warned that there could be dangerous consequences for the U.S. and Israel if military “action is taken prematurely.”

‘Zone of Immunity’

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials have warned that Iran may be only months away from reaching a “zone of immunity” where its nuclear activities in deep underground facilities would be invulnerable to Israeli air strikes.

“This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts,” Obama said, without explaining why he chose those time frames.

The European Union announced yesterday that the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany are prepared to restart stalled talks with Iran to achieve a “negotiated, long- term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” The EU set no deadlines for the start or conclusion of talks.

Netanyahu yesterday told U.S. lawmakers that he doesn’t think talks and sanctions will force Iran to back down, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who met with the Israeli leader.

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