WASHINGTON — Iran's nuclear ambitions will take center stage Monday when President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid rising global fears that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Obama said in an interview published Friday that he'd seek to convince Netanyahu that the U.S. had "Israel's back" and the American ally should give economic sanctions time to work before launching a military operation that the U.S. fears could further inflame tensions in the region.
With Netanyahu said to be intent on securing at least a promise from Obama that American force will be applied if Iran refuses to back away from a weapons program, the president made it clear that he's considering U.S. military action, as a last resort.
"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff," Obama said in the interview with The Atlantic. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."
The interview, conducted Wednesday at the White House and released Friday on The Atlantic's website, came amid reports of tension between the allies over how to handle the threat. The U.S. and Israel fear that Iran's nuclear program is designed to provide the country with nuclear weapons, though Tehran says its program is of a "peaceful nature."
Israel fears that Iran could reach a "zone of immunity," a point at which Israel would be unable to launch an effective strike to take out its nuclear facilities, and it's said to be frustrated at conflicting messages from U.S. officials. Amos Yadlin, a former Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief, warned in The New York Times this week that anything less than "an ironclad American assurance" that the U.S. will stop Iran's nuclear program could push Israel "to act while they still can."
Obama, though, questioned whether an Israeli strike on Iran would backfire as the U.S. builds global support to isolate Iran in hopes of forcing it to the bargaining table.
"At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally" — meaning Syria — "is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim and deflect attention?" he asked.
The administration contends there's time for sanctions and diplomacy. Obama said the U.S. and Israel think that Iran doesn't yet have a nuclear weapon "and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time."
Analysts said the interview represented the president's bid to secure the trust of Netanyahu, with whom he's had frosty relations. Obama is likely to deliver a similar muscular outline when he speaks Sunday before the politically potent American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"This is an effort to blunt any criticism from Netanyahu by putting out a hawkish statement in advance that appears to meet any reasonable requirements for hawkishness," said Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. "His bottom line is there's not going to be a nuclear Iran, and he's hoping that goes a long way toward satisfying Netanyahu."
Obama said in the interview that sanctions were capable of inflicting "a world of hurt," and the White House sought this week to bolster its case that the sanctions are working by pointing to stories that suggest a tightening economic noose. Among them: An Islamic bank in the United Arab Emirates said it would close off business with some Iranian banks, and Reuters reported Friday that a state-controlled Russian bank was closing the accounts of Iranian Embassy staff in Moscow.
The meeting in the Oval Office and the election-year address to AIPAC carry domestic implications for Obama. Three of his Republican presidential rivals — Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — have sought to portray him as weak on Israel, and all three will speak to AIPAC on Tuesday.
Obama dismissed the suggestion that he's not tough enough, pointing to the military strike he authorized last spring that took out Osama bin Laden.
He signaled a willingness to take on his GOP critics directly at fundraisers Thursday in New York, saying he's shown "there's no contradiction between being tough and strong" and "believing in diplomacy and believing in engagement ... even as we're prepared, when we need to for our own security, to act militarily."
Polls suggest little appetite in the U.S. for military engagement in Iran. A CNN/ORC International poll in mid-February found that just 17 percent want the U.S. to use force, with 60 percent backing diplomacy or sanctions. Nearly a quarter said there should be no action.
Obama heard the opposition himself when a woman stood up at a fundraiser Thursday, yelling, "Use your leadership! No war in Iran!" The president smiled and said, "Nobody's announced a war, young lady. You're jumping the gun a little bit."
But analysts say his saber-rattling poses a risk for him and a fragile U.S. economy that's only recently showing signs of recovery. During a speech Thursday, Obama singled out Iran as a factor in the latest spike in gasoline prices.
"The biggest thing that's causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East. This time it's Iran," the president said.
Republicans are looking to siphon traditionally Democratic-leaning Jewish voters from Obama, and they've hammered his record on Israel on the campaign trail. On Capitol Hill, some have pressured him to move faster to consider a military strike.
"The Iranian regime will not be allowed to possess nuclear capability. And if that means military action, so be it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Anticipating more partisan attacks, the Democratic National Committee this week launched a pre-emptive strike in Jewish newspapers and on the Web, accusing Republicans of looking to politicize U.S.-Israeli policy.
Obama said politics would be far from his mind Monday.
"In terms of Israeli politics, there's been a view that regardless of whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration," he said, "the working assumption is: We've got Israel's back."
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