WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged President Barack Obama to keep tough economic sanctions on Iran in place, even as the U.S. weighs a potential warming of relations and a restart of nuclear negotiations with Tehran’s new government.
“If diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place,” Netanyahu said during an Oval Office meeting with Obama. The two leaders met at the White House just days after Obama’s historic phone call with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The 15-minute call marked the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.
Obama credited the flurry of U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy with bringing Rouhani to the negotiating table. While he said it was important to “test diplomacy,” the president also said that Rouhani must back up his more conciliatory words with actions that give the international community confidence that Iran is not seeking to produce a nuclear weapon.
“We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed,” Obama said, adding that while he preferred a diplomatic solution, all options remain on the table, including military action.
Obama and Netanyahu, whose tense relationship has somewhat improved in recent months, also addressed the tenuous peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the bloody civil war in Syria, and unrest in Egypt, the first Arab country to forge a peace treaty with Israel. The two leaders had not met in person since March, when Obama made his first trip to Israel as president.
The sudden prospect of diplomacy with Iran overshadowed a host of pressing issues on the U.S.-Israeli agenda. Netanyahu has long been skeptical of Obama’s preference for negotiating with Iran, repeatedly pressing his U.S. counterpart to issue credible threats of military action if Tehran gets close to producing a nuclear weapon.
Sitting side-by-side with Obama, Netanyahu echoed his recent warnings that the U.S. and other Western nations should not be swayed by Rouhani’s courtship. Israelis derisively called Iran’s efforts the “smiley campaign.”
“The ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program,” he said.
Iran has offered to open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors as part of broad negotiations with the United States but has insisted that its nuclear program is its right and is for peaceful purposes only. The U.S., Israel and other allies have long accused Iran of seeking a bomb. Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu was expected to bring intelligence with him to Washington that Iran was on the cusp of achieving the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. He has previously argued for action to block Iran from acquiring the tools to reach that threshold.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview Sunday, scoffed at Israel’s warnings, saying Israeli leaders have been warning that Tehran is months away from having a nuclear weapon since 1991, and those fears have never been realized.
Zarif, a former nuclear negotiator for Iran, met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the United Nations last week.
American and Iranian officials had been negotiating a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani while both were in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meetings. However, U.S. officials said the Iranians told them an in-person meeting would be “too complicated” and the phone call was arranged instead.
Netanyahu will address the United Nations on Tuesday. He is expected to address Iran’s nuclear programs, as well as other regional issues, including the recent restart of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Obama commended Netanyahu for “entering into good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.” The talks began earlier this year after months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, though the possibility for a breakthrough remains slim.
Netanyahu said he remains committed to a peace accord and expressed hope that a breakthrough with the Palestinians could also lead to improved Israeli relations with other Arab nations.