Obama favors sanctions on Iran, but Netanyahu says time is running out

President Obama urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to allow time for the “most crippling sanctions” to take hold in Tehran before mounting a military strike on Iran. But Netanyahu told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday night that the Jewish state “cannot afford to wait much longer.”

In a high-stakes meeting at the White House, Obama stressed that there’s “still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution” to the Iranian nuclear threat and that the United States, together with other nations, would continue to “tighten pressure” on the regime through stiffer sanctions in the coming months.

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Even before their two-hour meeting and working lunch, there appeared to be some daylight in the approach to Iran between the two leaders, who have a famously cool relationship. 

While Obama sought to telegraph his message of diplomacy and sanctions, Netanyahu, who was seated beside the president, made no mention of Obama’s diplomatic approach. Instead, he made it known in very stark terms that Israel “reserves the right” to act unilaterally, a message he returned to in his evening speech to AIPAC.

“Israel must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said at the White House. “When it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to make its own decisions. I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.

“My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate,” Netanyahu added.

During a brief appearance before the media on Monday, both Obama and Netanyahu highlighted U.S.-Israeli unity, and there was none of the public testiness that characterized their face-off last spring, when the Israeli leader publicly lectured the U.S. president on his country’s history. 

But differences between the two leaders remain, causing some to wonder if the two could ever be on the same page on a possible strike on Iran.

Obama, who in a Sunday address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) emphasized that he “had Israel’s back,” said that if the Iranian regime didn’t move in the right direction, he would consider other options.

“As I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are on the table, I mean it,” Obama said.

“I don’t think those positions are irreconcilable, but it’s a concern that many people share,” said a source involved in U.S.-Israeli relations. “While Obama and Netanyahu may be on the same page on a macro level, they may not be on the same page in terms of the implementation.”

The Israeli prime minister's differences with Obnama's policy were clearly noticeable at AIPAC.

Netanyahu said that the international community has tried sanctions and diplomacy, and they have not worked.

“Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue,” Netanyahu said. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work — none of us can afford to wait much longer.”

Netanyahu’s speech, which drew rousing applause at the pro-Israel lobby’s policy conference, suggested that Netanyahu wasn’t inclined to heed U.S. calls not to attack Iran if the Israelis felt that Iran could obtain nuclear weapons.

He warned that even tougher sanctions recently passed by the United States and European Union against Iran have not slowed its nuclear efforts.

“I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran,” Netanyahu said. “And these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy. But unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward.”

Netanyahu said there is no doubt Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and emphasized several times in his speech that he will not stand by to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

“As prime minister, I will never gamble with the security of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu compared the threat to the Jewish people of a nuclear Iran to the Holocaust, noting that Iran has called for destruction of the Jewish state. But, he said, that today the Jewish people are different.

“Today we have a state of our own,” Netanyahu said, drawing his biggest applause of the night. “And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future.”

Monday’s meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was seen as an opportunity for the two leaders to get on the same page as the two countries decide how to confront Iran. The United States, Israel and Western allies say Iran is looking to obtain nuclear weapons, while Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Iran will soon enter a “zone of immunity,” where Israel will no longer be able to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Military analysts say that Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for Obama to convince Netanyahu that he will in fact act with military force if Iran pursues nuclear weapons.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) accused the Obama administration of sending “mixed messages” to Israel’s enemies. 

“Let us not send mixed messages when it comes to Israel. That only serves to confuse the world, including Israel’s enemies,” Cantor said on Monday in his own address to AIPAC. “Confusion about where America stands has raised questions about what some of our leaders in Washington are willing to put up with. That’s not just about Iran. It’s about Syria, it’s about Iraq, it’s about Egypt and it’s about Libya.”

But House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Obama has kept his commitment to Israel’s security. “No one should misconstrue difference of opinion or emphasis as in any way weakening a bond forged by principles, values, history and common interests,” Hoyer said.

After Obama and Netanyahu ended their meeting on Monday, White House officials continued to stress that diplomacy is the best way to solve the potential nuclear problem, and that the United States is building a coalition of nations while allowing space for diplomacy because Iran does not at this time have a nuclear weapon. 

One senior administration official said the United States would have roughly a year to make a decision on military action should the Iranian government choose to obtain a weapon.

Israeli leaders are convinced of Obama’s seriousness on the issue, the official added.

In public, Obama sought to assure Netanyahu that all options remain on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

“I reserve all options and my policy is not going to be one of containment,” Obama told Netanyahu in the Oval Office. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Analysts say Netanyahu is looking for assurances that if Israeli does not act, the Obama administration would, because Israel’s military capability gives it less time to disable Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel obviously is facing the situation where it’s kind of now or never for them for military action,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon adviser and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently wrote an article titled “Time to Attack Iran” in Foreign Affairs. “If they don’t take action now, they’re going to have to trust that the United States will.”

The prime minister, who thanked Obama for his “strong” speech at AIPAC, also touted his country’s relationship with the United States.

“We face common enemies,” Netanyahu said. “Iran’s leaders know that, too. For them, you’re the great Satan. We’re the little Satan. For them, we are you and you are us. And you know something, Mr. President? At least on that last point, I think they’re right.”

Kroenig said that the two leaders’ message of unity Monday was intended for the domestic audience in each country: Obama to show he stands with Israel and will be tough on Iran in the face of Republican attacks, and Netanyahu to show he can play nice with the leader of Israel’s most important ally on an issue that is dividing his public. 

Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said Monday’s meeting will help Obama and Netanyahu coordinate their private strategies as well as their public messages.

“Confusion and mixed messages create uncertainty, which can be very dangerous in a situation that’s ripe for war,” Sachs said.

Speaking to Netanyahu on Monday, Obama said it’s “unacceptable from Israel’s perspective to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for the destruction of Israel.”

“But as I emphasized yesterday, it is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he added. 

“We do not want to see a nuclear arms race in one of the most volatile regions of the world. We do not want the possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists and we do not want a regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism being able to feel that it can act even more aggressively or with impunity as a consequence of its nuclear power," Obama said.