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Obama, Netanyahu Show Unity, Yet Signal Differences, Over Iran Strategy

March 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: There was war talk in the air as President Obama and the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, met today at the White House. Their focus: what to do about Iran’s nuclear program.

In public, in the Oval Office, in front of the cameras, the president and prime minister spoke of common threats and common interests.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister: If there’s one thing that stands out clearly in the Middle East today, it’s that Israel and America stand together.

GWEN IFILL: But when it comes to the potential of an Iranian nuclear threat, the two leaders also signaled they do not yet see eye to eye on when and how to respond. The U.S. has argued for increasingly tough economic sanctions against Iran and stepped-up diplomacy.

BARACK OBAMA: It is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We do not want to see a nuclear arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world.

GWEN IFILL: But Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained that Israel had the latitude to respond militarily.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel must have the ability always to defend itself, by itself, against any threat; and that 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.

GWEN IFILL: The barely concealed tensions have played out in private and public during the past several weeks.

On Sunday, the president warned against loose talk of war in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

BARACK OBAMA: For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressures sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.

GWEN IFILL: But in Canada on Friday, Netanyahu warned against letting Iran stall for time.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It could pursue or exploit the talks, as they have done in the past, to deceive and to delay, so that they can continue to advance their nuclear program and get to the nuclear finish line by running the clock, running up the clock, so to speak. And I think the international community shouldn’t fall into this trap.

GWEN IFILL: The Iranians insist their program is for peaceful uses only. American officials have long dismissed that claim. But, in January, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said U.S. officials do not believe Iran has yet decided to build a bomb.

Today in Vienna, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency said Iran may be concealing its weapons work.

YUKIYA AMANO, International Atomic Energy Agency: The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.

GWEN IFILL: And President Obama pointedly said today he has not ruled out military action.

BARACK OBAMA: My policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

And as I indicated yesterday in my speech when I say all options are on the table, I mean it. Having said that, I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically.

GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister Netanyahu will have more to say on the issue tonight when he addresses the AIPAC conference.