New York // Talks take precedence over military action against Iran over its nuclear programme, Barack Obama told Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday.
The emphasis on diplomacy comes amid a thaw in the relationship between Tehran and Washington. The US president said last week Iran had a right to “peaceful nuclear energy”, and made a historic telephone call at the weekend to Iran’s newly elected leader, Hassan Rouhani.
“We have to test diplomacy, we have to see if in fact Iran is serious about its willingness to abide by international norms and international law,” Mr Obama said after a meeting at the White House yesterday with the Israeli prime minister. “We enter into these negotiations very clear eyed. They will not be easy.”
He also made clear that the threat of unilateral military action by the US was still real. “We take no options off the table, including military options.”
Mr Netanyahu warned that Iran must dismantle its “military nuclear programme” as a necessary condition for a diplomatic solution that would avert military action and that such a step was Israel’s “bottom line”.
Mr Netanyahu also said the economic sanctions Mr Obama has tightened over the course of his presidency must be maintained during any diplomacy with Iran. “In fact, if Iran continues to advance its nuclear programme during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened,” he said.
The talks came as the Obama administration stepped up efforts to convince its sceptical Israeli and Arab allies and pro-Israel lobbyists and members of Congress that the unexpected diplomatic opening to resolve the standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme must be tested.
The closed-door meeting between the two leaders came just three days after Mr Obama had an historic telephone conversation with Iran’s newly elected leader, Hassan Rouhani, whose trip to the United Nations General Assembly last week has suddenly raised hopes in Washington for a negotiated solution that would not test the US leader’s promise to bomb Iran to prevent it from making an atomic weapon.
Mr Obama said the 15-minute conversation convinced him there was genuine hope of a negotiated resolution of the dispute with Iran, which is one of Washington’s primary Middle East policy goals.
Before the White House meeting, Israeli officials said Mr Netanyahu “does not care that he is the only one ruining the party”. Before leaving for his trip, Mr Netanyahu said his speech at the General Assembly today would deliver “the truth in the face of the sweet talk and charm offensive of Iran”.
Iranian officials insist their nuclear programme is intended only for civilian purposes. “We believe nuclear weapons are detrimental to our security,” the foreign minister Javad Zarif said.
While Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu put forward a unified front after their meeting yesterday, administration officials are working overtime to address concerns over the diplomatic approach by Israel and its many supporters in Washington, as well as Arab allies.
“Obviously, we and others in the international community have every reason to be sceptical of that and we need to test it, and any agreement must be fully verifiable and enforceable,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Sunday in an interview on CNN.
Iran must “meet its international obligations under Security Council resolutions and that the sanctions would remain until those obligations were satisfied”, she said.
“I think there is nothing to worry about our mutual approach to the Iranian issue. We have the same main objectives,” US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said in an interview yesterday aired on Israeli radio. “Our leaders agree on those objectives. The main objective is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Mr Rouhani’s motives also face skepticism by hawks in the US Congress. On Sunday, a group of senators said they would press for even harsher sanctions, a move that could hamper any efforts by Mr Obama to ease sanctions if Iran agrees to a deal.
While the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, supports increased sanctions and urges US legislators to not trust the Iranian government, the administration was beginning to sell the diplomatic track to other pro-Israel groups.
The US vice president Joe Biden was to address the annual gathering yesterday of the liberal pro-Israel lobby group J Street, which publicly supports testing Mr Rouhani’s overtures with new negotiations.
At the White House yesterday, Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu were also thought to have discussed the US-led effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The two sides, along with US officials led by special envoy Martin Indyk, have met for seven rounds of talks so far, but few details have emerged.
During his address to the General Assembly last week, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the ongoing negotiations offered the “last chance” for peace.