Barack Obama tells Israel conference: ‘too much loose talk of war’

In address to Aipac, president says world has responsibility to discourage Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapon

Barack Obama has admonished Israel for “too much loose talk of war” with Iran and said the world has a responsibility to give sanctions an opportunity to discourage Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Speaking ahead of a meeting on Monday with the Israel prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama sought to head off pressure for him to commit to military action against Tehran if it crosses specified “red lines” in its nuclear programme.

The president told a sceptical audience at the annual conference of the US’s most influential pro-Israel lobby group that he accepts a “basic truth” that no Israeli government can tolerate Iran developing a nuclear weapon and that he therefore understands the “profound historical obligation” weighing on the shoulders of Israel’s leaders.

Obama said explicitly that he is prepared to use force against Iran to defend US interests if necessary but he chastised those who appear to be in a hurry for war in comments apparently aimed at belligerent noises from Israeli officials.

“I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) . “Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear programme. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.

“Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

Obama pleased Aipac delegates by saying he would not pursue a policy of “containment” of an Iran with a nuclear weapon – a commitment the pro-Israel lobby has been pressing through support of resolutions in Congress. He also said that he “will take no option off the table” and that includes “a military effort to be prepared for any contingency”.

“I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests,” he said.

But Netanyahu wants Obama to go further and commit to the use of force if Iran crosses agreed “red lines” in the development of its nuclear programme.

Netanyahu warned on Friday that the international community should not fall in to the “trap” of negotiating while Iran continues its “relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons”. He said that the international community should demand the immediate dismantling of Iran’s underground nuclear facility in Qom and that it halt uranium enrichment.

Netanyahu is to address Aipac after his meeting with Obama. But Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, pressed the point when he told the conference on Sunday that Iran is an evil and corrupt regime that is “an affront to human dignity”.

“It must be stopped, and it will be stopped,” he said. “If we are forced to fight, trust me, we shall prevail.”

White House officials have made clear that the president will not set the “red lines” wanted by Netanyahu out of concern it will be interpreted by the Israelis as a tacit endorsement of an attack if Iran fails to meet the demands. Obama is instead expected to repeat in private to Netanyahu what he has said in public – that there is time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

“I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy – backed by pressure – to succeed. The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their programme. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists,” he said to virtual silence from the Aipac delegates. “Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end.

“Given their history, there are of course no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.”

Obama went on to say that the experience of sending Americans to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan has left him in no hurry for a war in Iran.

“As president and commander-in-chief, I have a deeply-held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way,” he said. “For this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognise their obligation to defend their country.”

Like every other president of recent times, Obama restated to Aipac the “unbreakable bonds” between the US and Israel and his own commitment to the Jewish state. But he sounded unusually defensive in the face of Republican accusations that he is endangering Israel’s security with his Iran policy and that he has been “anti-Israel” by pressing Netanyahu to take peace negotiations with the Palestinians seriously, beginning with a halt to continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

“As you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture, at every fork in the road‚ we have been there for Israel. Every single time,” he said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

from Chris McGreal


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