Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed relief Monday with President Obama’s reassurances the United States will not cave in to Iran in upcoming nuclear talks.
But even as Netanyahu thanked Obama for his tough talk during a White House meeting, he called on the administration to redouble sanctions against the Iranian regime.
“The most important challenge is preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told Obama in remarks following the meeting.
“I appreciate deeply the fact that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal.”
Israel has watched warily as Obama responded to the new Iranian president’s calls for a fresh start in his country’s relations with the U.S.
Obama personally called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday in the first direct conversation between leaders of the two countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The president has also tasked Secretary of State John Kerry with trying to negotiate a deal with the Iranians.
“We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed,” Obama said Monday after his meeting with Netanyahu.
“As president of the United States, I’ve said before, and I will repeat, that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have ... nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America.”
He reiterated that sanctions will remain in place until Iran demonstrates that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Netanyahu told Obama he appreciated “the statement you made that Iran’s conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions — transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions.”
He said Iran is only coming back to the table because the country’s economy is under strain.
“I also believe that if diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place,” Netanyahu said. “In fact, it is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened.”
Netanyahu has said that his U.S. trip is aimed at raising concerns about Rouhani’s “sweet talk.” He is expected to deliver the same warning during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
“I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding his flight to the U.S. on Sunday, according to The Associated Press. “Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the state of Israel.”
In four hours of meetings at the White House on Monday, Obama and Vice President Biden sought to allay Netanyahu’s concerns about U.S. talks with Iran. The prime minister then headed to the State Department for a one-on-one with Kerry.
The tone between Obama and Netanyahu seemed more collegial than in past encounters in 2011 and 2012, when the Israeli leader rejected the president’s call for Palestinian peace talks based on Israel’s pre-1967 war borders and reiterated Israel’s “right to defend itself” against Iran.
Netanyahu injected himself into the U.S. presidential debate during last year’s U.N. address when he warned that Israel would not allow Iran to gain the ability to produce a nuclear bomb.
White House press secretary Jay Carney hedged when asked if Obama endorsed Netanyahu’s proposal to further sanction Iran if negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program proved fruitless.
The White House spokesman said “we’re certainly not going to give sanctions relief absent action” by the Iranians.
Carney said the current sanctions regime “has brought us to this point.”
He credited the president’s willingness to negotiate with Iran as enabling a change in focus “from a debate about whether the United States was part of the problem to a focus on the fact that Iran was the problem.”
Carney added that the White House remained “encouraged” by what it had heard from the new Iranian leadership.
Obama and Netanyahu also talked about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the last-minute U.N. resolution ordering Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to the international community.
“I commended him for entering into good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in discussing how we can resolve what has been obviously one of the biggest challenges for a very long time in the region,” Obama said.
“And both Prime Minister Netanyahu and [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas have assigned outstanding negotiators. They have been engaging in serious conversations.”
Netanyahu was also scheduled to have a working coffee with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), is one of the leading congressional hawks on Iran.
Menendez has scheduled a hearing Thursday with a top State Department official on “Reversing Iran’s Nuclear Program.” He penned a Washington Post editorial over the weekend with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saying they were “underwhelmed” by Rouhani’s overtures.
“In the coming days,” the lawmakers wrote, “we will be outspoken in our support for furthering sanctions against Iran, requiring countries to again reduce their purchases of Iranian petroleum and imposing further prohibitions on strategic sectors of the Iranian economy.”
Justin Sink contributed to this report.
This report was updated at 8 p.m.
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