In advance of meeting with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said he hopes Israel understands ‘I don’t bluff’ on Iran
Barack Obama has warned Iran that he is not bluffing when he says that the US will use force if necessary to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. But the president also cautioned Israel that an attack on Iran would not provide a long-term solution to the crisis.
Obama sought to reassure the Jewish state that he “has its back” ahead of a meeting on Monday with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is expected to urge the president to make an explicit threat of military action if Tehran’s nuclear programme advances beyond specified “red lines”.
“I think that the Israeli government recognises that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” Obama told the Atlantic. “I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognise that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
Obama said that he has a “profound preference for peace over war” but that does not mean he is unwilling to use force when he believes “it is in the core national interest of the United States”. He said that the “military component” is a final option in dealing with Iran but added he would try to persuade Netanyahu that the long term solution is to convince Tehran that developing nuclear weapons is not in its own interests.
“Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily and the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa,” he said.
The president said that sanctions are causing Iran a “world of hurt” and described the US campaign to unite the world against Tehran as “successful beyond most people’s expectations”.
“Ultimately, the Israeli prime minister and the defence minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel’s security, and I don’t presume to tell them what is best for them,” he said. “But as Israel’s closest friend and ally, and as one that has devoted the last three years to making sure that Israel has additional security capabilities, and has worked to manage a series of difficult problems and questions over the past three years, I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
Israel questions Obama’s assertion that there is still plenty of time to give sanctions to work. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, has said that the immediate danger is not that Iran is building a nuclear weapon but that it is constructing the means to do so in underground fortified facilities that will soon be beyond the reach of an Israeli attack.
For that reason, Israeli officials say Netanyahu is looking for firm guarantees from Obama that the US will be prepared to take military action against Iran’s nuclear programme if it advances beyond specified markers.
Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times that there is disagreement with the White House over where to draw the “red line” that would set off military intervention.
Peres said that Israel needs “a total and clear commitment that the catastrophe of Iran will not create an impossible situation”.
“You have to be decisive,” he said. “You have to make a choice.”
The New York Times said that Peres, who will meet Obama on Sunday, suggested that if the White House was not resolute, Israel might have to launch a unilateral attack against Iran.
“This is an unavoidable situation,” he said. “It’s not exactly the Nazi situation, but my God, what a catastrophe.”
But while the US president was publicly keen to reassure Israel, he stood by his insistence that pressuring Iran in to agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons is ultimately a better guarantor of the Jewish state’s security than military action. He also warned that an attack could turn world opinion in favour of Iran.
“At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally [Syria] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?” he said.
Obama said he is not looking to Iran to “knuckle under to us”.
“What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that’s something they should be able to do without losing face,” he said.
Netanyahu is travelling to Washington to address the annual meeting of the influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).
Obama will also speak to the group on Sunday where he can be expected to try and reassure a sceptical audience amid accusations from Republicans and some of Israel’s more belligerent supporters that he is too soft on Iran and anti-Israel for having pressured Netanyahu on issues such as continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Obama expressed frustration at the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
“Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept,” he said. “Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?
“If you have a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy, then it’s good to try to fan doubts and raise questions. But when you look at the record, there’s no ‘there’ there.”
Aipac has been at the forefront of warnings in Washington, publishing a position paper that warns “time is running out to prevent Iran from obtaining sufficient quantities of higher enriched uranium to facilitate a quick breakout to produce a nuclear weapon”. It has said that Iran could produce a large enough stockpile of uranium by the end of the year to build a bomb.
Obama denied he has a “dysfunctional relationship” with Netanyahu. He said that Israel’s leadership acknowledges that “we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation”.
“What I think is absolutely true is that the prime minister and I come out of different political traditions. This is one of the few times in the history of US-Israeli relations where you have a government from the right in Israel at the same time you have a center-left government in the United States, and so I think what happens then is that a lot of political interpretations of our relationship get projected onto this,” he said.
“But one thing that I have found in working with Prime Minister Netanyahu is that we can be very frank with each other, very blunt with each other, very honest with each other. For the most part, when we have differences, they are tactical and not strategic.”
from Chris McGreal