Binyamin Netanyahu pressing for explicit threat from US ahead of crucial meeting with Obama next week in Washington
Israel is pressing Barack Obama for an explicit threat of military action against Iran if sanctions fail and Tehran’s nuclear programme advances beyond specified “red lines”.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is expected to raise the issue at a White House meeting on Monday after weeks of intense diplomacy in which Obama has dispatched senior officials – including his intelligence, national security and military chiefs – to Jerusalem to try and dampen down talk of an attack.
Diplomats say that Israel is angered by the Obama administration’s public disparaging of early military action against Iran, saying that it weakens the prospect of Tehran taking the warnings from Israel seriously.
The two sides are attempting to agree a joint public statement to paper over the divide but talks will not be made easier by a deepening distrust in which the Israelis question Obama’s commitment to confront Iran while the White House is frustrated by what it sees as political interference by Netanyahu to mobilise support for Israel’s position in the US Congress.
“They are poles apart,” said one diplomatic source. “The White House believes there is time for sanctions to work and that military threats don’t help. The Israelis regard this as woolly thinking.
They see Iran as headed towards a bomb, even though they agree there is no evidence Tehran has made that decision yet, and they want the White House to up the ante. The White House has the Europeans behind its position but it’s losing Congress.”
The mood is not helped by worsening distrust between the two leaders. Relations soured within weeks of Obama coming to power after he attempted to pressure Netanyahu to halt construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that Iran will dominate his talks with Obama.
“There is no doubt that one issue will be at the centre of our talks, and that is, of course, the continued strengthening of Iran and its nuclear programme,” he said.
Israeli officials say that Netanyahu is not happy with Obama’s “vague assertion” that all options are on the table in dealing with Iran. The Israeli prime minister wants Obama to state unequivocally that Washington is prepared to use force if Iran’s nuclear programme advances beyond specified red lines.
US administration sources say that Obama is unlikely to make a major shift in policy in public although he may give Netanyahu firmer assurances in private.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is intent on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but that for now it is committed to using sanctions and diplomacy.
“We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue that approach,” he said. “Even as we refuse and make clear that we do not take any option off the table in our effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he said.
But last month the Guardian revealed that some American officials are convinced that sanctions will not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear programme, and believe that the US will be left with no option but to launch an attack on Iran or watch Israel do so.
One of the principal differences is over timing. The US continues to say it believes Iran has not yet decided whether or not to develop a nuclear bomb, and that even if it does it is perhaps years away from being able to do so.
Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, was in Washington this week for meetings with vice-president Joe Biden and US defence secretary Leon Panetta, among others, at which he pressed his view that a direct decision by Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon is not the immediate issue so long as it continues to build the means to do so, and that the matter is urgent.
The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, told Congress this week that during a recent visit to Jerusalem the principal difference was over the question of how long to give sanctions and diplomacy an opportunity to work. “We’ve had a conversation with them about time, the issue of time,” he said.
Dempsey was one of several senior US officials to travel to Israel in recent weeks, including Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
Dempsey infuriated Netanyahu with comments that it is “premature” to launch an attack and that an Israeli assault on Iran would be imprudent and destabilising, and not achieve Israel’s objectives. He also said that Iran is a “rational” player and should be treated as such.
Netanyahu met a group of US senators last week, including John McCain, and complained strongly about Obama administration officials publicly opposing an Israeli strike on Iran.
After the meeting, McCain criticised the White House position. “There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat. Unfortunately there clearly is some,” he said.
McCain described relations between the US and Israel as in “very bad shape right now” saying that differences over Iran have caused “significant tension”. He appeared to side with the Israeli position in noting that “there is very little doubt that Iran has so far been undeterred to get nuclear weapons”.
The Republican chair of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, said on Monday after meeting Israeli officials that there is a wide difference of opinion between Israel and the White House.
“I got the sense that Israel is incredibly serious about a strike on [Iran’s] nuclear weapons programme. It’s their calculus that the [US] administration … is not serious about a real military consequence to Iran moving forward,” he said. “They believe they’re going to have to make a decision on their own, given the current posture of the United States.”
Last week, 12 senators sent the president a letter warning that he should not allow Tehran to buy time by engaging in fruitless diplomatic negotiations, expected to begin in the coming weeks. They demanded that Obama insist Iran halt its uranium enrichment programme before talks begin.
More than half the members of the Senate have backed a resolution that some see as pressing for an attack in declaring that the White House should not pursue a policy of “containment”.
Senator Joe Lieberman, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said it is intended “to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices – peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear program or expect a military strike to end that programme.”
Critics of the resolution said that it smacks of a congressional authorisation for an attack on Iran. That view was reinforced when the sponsors declined a request from some Democrats to amend it to clarify that the resolution did not imply consent for war.
Israeli officials told the Associated Press this week that Israel will not notify the US before an attack on Iran. US officials scoff at the idea that Washington would not know an assault is coming, and the Israeli position may be intended to allow the White House to deny any responsibility.
from Chris McGreal