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Netanyahu Urges White House to Continue Iran Sanctions

September 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Oval Office to warn President Barack Obama not to be swayed by Iran's recent change in diplomatic tone and to keep economic sanctions against the nation in place. Margaret Warner talks to Judy Woodruff about Israel's concerns over recent diplomatic overtures by Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After last week’s historic phone call with the president of Iran, President Obama received a visit and a warning today from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: The Israeli prime minister came to the Oval Office today intent on delivering a message.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: Benjamin Netanyahu used his White House moment to warn the U.S., do not be swayed by what some Israelis have dubbed Iran’s smiley campaign, diplomatic overtures by its new president aimed at loosening economic sanctions.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I believe that it is the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that has brought Iran to the negotiating table. I also believe that if diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place. And I think they shouldn’t be lessened until there is verifiable success.

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MARGARET WARNER: President Obama said Iran’s rhetoric alone is not sufficient and that to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, all options remain on the table.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed. They will not be easy. And anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification, in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for. So, we will be in close consultation with Israel and our other friends and allies in the region during this process.

MARGARET WARNER: All this followed a flurry of signals last week from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York of renewed interest in negotiating an end to the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program, including in a speech to the United Nations on Tuesday and to reporters on Friday.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): In speaking with senior European officials and also hearing Mr. Obama, the president of the United States, it seemed that they sounded different compared to the past, and I view that as a positive step in the settlement of the differences between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West.

MARGARET WARNER: Later that afternoon, Rouhani and President Obama conversed by telephone. Leaders of the two governments had not spoken since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Islamic Republic is believed to have at least five main nuclear sites, as well as several uranium mines and research reactors. The regime insists its uranium enrichment and plutonium programs are purely for civilian energy use.

On ABC yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif echoed that message, but held firm on Tehran’s right to enrich.

JAVAD ZARIF, Iranian Foreign Minister: Negotiations are on the table to discuss various aspects of Iran’s enrichment program. Our right to enrich is nonnegotiable.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC News: But you don’t need to enrich it above 20 percent, which is only used for military purposes.

JAVAD ZARIF: We do not need military-grade uranium. That is a certainty, and we will not move in that direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Negotiators from the U.S. and five other world powers are set to meet with Zarif in Geneva in mid-October. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is expected to address the issue again when he goes before the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now for more on today’s meeting and the delicate issue of Iran.

So, Margaret, this was a meeting a lot of people were waiting for. What struck you about what you learned from it?

MARGARET WARNER: What struck me, Judy, is that even though Prime Minister Netanyahu had called Rouhani a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you didn’t hear a lot of fiery rhetoric from him in this Oval Office meeting.

He almost seemed subdued. He said, of course, Israel is going to insist that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons capability, but President Obama and I are in agreement on that.

The one sort of discordant note, if you read between the lines or looked at one line, had to do with sanctions. He said, not only should sanctions not be lifted during the negotiating phase, as long as Iran was still producing, running its program, but in fact should be further toughened.

And there are moves on the hill to do that. This is — that is not what the administration wants to see right at this moment. But Prime Minister Netanyahu went from all his White House and State Department meetings to the Hill to meet with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I’m told, to discuss this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s coming. That’s this afternoon.

MARGARET WARNER: Going on now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you were telling me earlier that there are clear points of agreement between the U.S. and Israel still over Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Their clearest point of agreement is that, one, Iran not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons capability, but, two, that it not even get to the level in which it has breakout capability.

And by that, it means they are so close and they have got so much sophistication now, that they could quickly jump to creating bombs, before the world could react and before either Israel on the U.S. could act. And they’re very much in agreement. It’s just that the point at which military action becomes unfeasible is different for each country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, then pick up on that. What are the principal sticking points between the two countries?

MARGARET WARNER: I figure two differences.

One is Israel has said it will never subcontract its security even to its most trusted ally, the United States, for historical reasons. The point at which Israel, because it has less military capability than the U.S., in bombers and in heavy weaponry and in overall military capability, comes a lot sooner.

And so at what point does Israel have to act or preclude the possibility of acting? That’s always been a difference and it remains one. The other is the whole question about whether Iran gets to continue to enrich. Netanyahu’s position has been, to satisfy Israel, no enrichment, halt all enrichment and move all of its enriched uranium out of the country. Those are two of his tenets.

You just heard Prime Minister Zarif saying the right to enrich to some level is a nonnegotiable demand of Iran. And I’m told by administration officials that they recognize that in the give and take there’s going to have to be some accommodation on that.

So, how does the administration — where is the line that would be enough to satisfy Israel that whatever program Iran has is under real IAEA supervision, so modest that it cannot be converted to military use quickly?

JUDY WOODRUFF: As you suggest, though, Margaret, it’s not just the relationship between the two of them. Prime Minister Netanyahu has additional leverage in the form of Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: He certainly does. And tonight’s meeting shows he’s not afraid to use that leverage.

Back in July, four days before Rouhani was inaugurated — and after all, he ran on the promise of moderating the tone with the West and negotiating over the program — the House passed 400-20 a bill to further toughen economic sanctions on Iran as long as the program continued. And Tehran reacted incredibly angrily.

Five days later, three-quarters of the U.S. Senate, 76 senators signed an open letter to President Obama saying the same thing. As long as work continues, we should keep toughening the sanctions. I’m told there is a bill in the Senate which they agreed to hold off until the fall, but there is one very close to being introduced, and that would further penalize companies in allied countries that don’t reduce their dependence on Iranian oil.

So, that — three-quarters of the American public told CNN that they’re behind this diplomacy track, but there are more skeptics on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, just quickly, tomorrow, Netanyahu goes to speak at U.N. We were talking about this earlier. It’s hard to believe it was exactly a year ago when he gave the famous red line speech.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right and had that crude drawing of a bomb, and it was to what level of 20 percent enriched uranium if Iran approached that would be unacceptable to Israel and Israel would have to act.

Interestingly, Iran did take note and sort of converted some of that 20 percent uranium back to lower percent to — for nuclear reactor purposes. But, the fact is, I think we are going to see a tougher tone from Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow probably at the U.N. than we heard today in the Oval Office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But interesting the Iranians listening to the Israelis, apparently.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you.