President Obama said Monday there is time to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy and not a military strike at the outset of a high-stakes meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For the second day in a row, Obama said there’s “still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution” to the Iranian nuclear threat and that the United States, together with other countries, would continue to “tighten pressure” and put forth the “most crippling sanctions” to date.
But Obama, who in a Sunday address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 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.
Obama and Netanyahu highlighted U.S.-Israeli unity during a brief appearance before the media, but differences remain between the two countries over just how big the window is for a diplomatic resolution.
On Monday, Netanyahu, sitting beside Obama in the Oval Office, said Israel “must reserve the right” to act unilaterally.
“Israel must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “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.
The Obama-Netanyahu meeting on Monday lasted about two hours, a senior administration official said.
The official stressed 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 have a nuclear weapon.
The official said the United States would have enough time to make a decision on military action should the Iranian government choose to obtain a weapon. Israeli leaders are convinced on Obama's seriousness to 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 before a gaggle of reporters. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu is expected to press Obama to more clearly define the "red lines" for when the United States would act military to stop Iran. Analysts say that the Israeli prime minister is looking for assurances that if Israeli does not act, the Obama administration would, because Israel's military capability gives them less time to be able to disable Iran's nuclear program.
The prime minister, who thanked Obama for his “strong” speech on Sunday before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, 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.”
As the two leaders wrestled with arguably their weightiest issue to date, the meeting on Monday appeared far less tense than their meeting last year, when Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on the history of Israel.
On Monday, before a one-on-one meeting followed by a working lunch, the two leaders both highlighted their common bond, sending a strong message to Iran and other nations about their unity.
“As I’ve said repeatedly the bond between our two countries is unbreakable," Obama said. "My personal commitment, a commitment that us consistent with the history of other occupants of this Oval Office, is rock solid, and as I’ve said to the prime minister in every single one of our meetings, the United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.”
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’s 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."
—This story was posted at 12:15 p.m. and last updated at 2:10 p.m.