US Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare invocation of war with Iran in advance of Monday's meeting between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu where Tehran's nuclear program is expected top the agenda.
Netanyahu and top Israeli officials have been publicly at odds with the US over terms for a diplomatic deal with Iran and their tone has not softened in the lead-up to the Washington meeting.
While the US has seemingly resigned itself to Iran retaining some limited uranium enrichment capabilities under a final agreement, Netanyahu has said that the Islamic Republic must be stripped of all capability – including all enrichment capacity – to build nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu believes that the final agreement must address Iran’s weaponization and intercontinental ballistic missile program, something not on the agenda in the world power’s talks with the Iranians.
Those missiles, he has argued, are necessary only to deliver a nuclear payload.
Kerry this week defended the US, stating that before going to war with Iran over its nuclear program, Obama has an obligation “as a matter of leadership” to pursue a peaceful solution to the crisis.
“We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if, before we go to war, there actually might be a peaceful solution,” Kerry told reporters in Washington, referring to an aggressive US effort last fall to freeze the crisis with an interim deal,” Kerry said on Wednesday.
That deal, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and agreed upon by Iran and the P5+1 – the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – grants the parties six months to negotiate a final settlement to the nuclear impasse.
“I happen to believe as a matter of leadership – and I learnt this pretty hard from Vietnam – [that] before you send young people to war, you ought to find out if there is a better alternative,” said Kerry, who served in the Vietnam War as a US naval officer.
“That is an obligation we have as leaders to exhaust all the remedies available to you before you ask people to give up their lives, and that is what we are doing.”
Kerry’s comments made just five days before the Obama Netanyahu meeting were a rare invocation of war with Iran, a scenario most senior administration officials avoid discussing openly. The prospect of open conflict has come up in recent months, however, in an effort by the White House to raise the stakes of the negotiations.
Pushing Congress to stall a vote on a bill that would trigger new sanctions tools against Iran should talks fail, Kerry warned his former Senate colleagues that such a tactic might undermine the diplomatic process and lead to avoidable conflict.
That bill has since lost key Democratic support, not on its contents but on its timing.
Obama said he would veto the bill if passed during the negotiations period, but promised to be the first to pursue new sanctions should the JPOA expire without a comprehensive accord.
Meanwhile, on the eve of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, where in addition to meeting Obama he is scheduled to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday, government officials said that Netanyahu wanted to move ahead as quickly as possible on the diplomatic track.
These comments were made in response to a New York Times report Thursday quoting advisers to Obama as saying that he was poised to plunge back into the Middle East diplomatic process, after months of letting Kerry do the heavy lifting.
According to the report, Obama will press Netanyahu to agree to the long-awaited framework document that Kerry is expected to present in the near future to form a basis for continued talks.
Obama will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 17, the White House said on Thursday, and the US president will no doubt urge him as well to accept the framework.
The Obama administration had originally hoped to help broker a deal by April 29. But on Wednesday, Kerry said he hopes at best to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a “framework” for an agreement by that time.
A final deal may take another nine months or more, Kerry said.
The framework would guide further talks, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“The parties are talking about the core issues, including borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, mutual recognition, an end of conflict and an end of claims,” he said.
“We believe that the framework will be a significant breakthrough, as it would represent a common picture on the outlines of the final status agreement,” he said.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has urged European leaders with whom he has spoken over the last few weeks to have the same type of “tough and critical” conversations with the Palestinians that they routinely have with Israel regarding the need to show flexibility and accept the framework.
On Thursday, timed just prior to Netanyahu’s departure, 10 heads of municipal and regional councils in Judea and Samaria, and seven prominent religious-Zionist rabbis – including Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu – wrote letters to Netanyahu urging him to stand firm in the face of US pressure. The two separate letters called on him to remain firm on the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and urged him to oppose any division of the land.
“The entire land belongs only to the Jewish people,” the letters read. “There is no place for another state on this holy land.”
Reuters contributed to this report.