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Obama's assurance to Netanyahu: US 'will always have Israel's back'

Leaders meet at White House as UN’s nuclear watchdog says it has serious concerns about the intent of the Iranian atomic programme.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House yesterday.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House yesterday.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama, the US president, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, met yesterday at the White House with the issue of Iran's nuclear programme dominating the agenda.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Obama said the two leaders would discuss a whole range of issues that in addition to Iran's nuclear programme would include the peace process with the Palestinians.

He emphasised that the US-Israel relationship was "unbreakable".

The US "will always have Israel's back," Mr Obama said.

Mr Netanyahu thanked Mr Obama for his "friendship", but emphasised "Israel must reserve the right to defend itself", a reference to Israel's position on a the potential strike against Iran's nuclear.

Israeli officials have suggested the country might take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear sites. Before Mr Netanyahu arrived in Washington, some suggested such a strike would happen without any warning to the US.

The US wants international sanctions against Iran to be given more time, and Mr Obama was expected to urge Mr Netanyahu to cool the rhetoric.

The meeting came as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA yesterday voiced "serious concerns" over Iran's nuclear capabilities. Yukiya Amano, the agency's director-general, also told a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors there had been little progress in talks between the agency and Tehran.

A report by the IAEA last month said Iran was significantly stepping up uranium enrichment, and Iran's nuclear programme has dominated Mr Netanyahu's visit to Washington, shunting aside any focus on the moribund Palestinian peace process.

Mr Netanyahu was expected to urge Mr Obama to be more aggressive on Iran's nuclear ambitions. The US and Israel openly differ on the urgency with which to attempt any violent dismantling of Iran's nuclear programme.

The US wants to allow international sanctions more time, but Israeli officials have indicated they might go it alone should Iran approach the "zone of immunity" - a phrase coined by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to describe the point after which any Israeli military strike would lose its effect.

Iran says its nuclear programme is intended only for peaceful purposes.

Mr Obama had told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Aipac, a prominent pro-Israel advocacy group, on Sunday the US would only use force to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons "when the time and circumstance demand it".

It was Mr Obama's bluntest military threat yet over the issue, but he also cautioned against unnecessary "bluster" and warned that "loose talk of war" was counterproductive.

The Israeli reaction was mixed.

Mr Netanyahu was cagey in a response released by his office, saying only: "More than everything, I value his statement that Israel must be able to protect itself from all threats."

Ayoub Kara, a deputy minister in his government was scathing..

"If Israel doesn't bluster, the US will also be in danger, because Iran's missiles will reach them too. Israel is doing everything possible to keep the world safe, and it's unfortunate that the White House doesn't see things the way we see them here."

But Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister, told Israel Radio US-Israel coordination was now "almost perfect".

The US administration's position on Iran came under sharp criticism from some of Mr Obama's would-be rivals for the presidency in November, however, who accuse him of being too soft. Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the House of Representatives, told CNN a nuclear armed Iran could spell "holocaust" for Israel.

Campaigning in Georgia, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said: "If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change if that's the case."

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, said they were unhappy at what they saw as a successful Israeli attempt to deflect attention away from Israel's illegal settlement construction in occupied territory - a key sticking point in any peace talks.

Ignoring the issue of settlements, said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, would only encourage Israel to build more.

okarmi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by AFP and the Associated Press

Updated: March 6, 2012 04:00 AM

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