US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment that the US is “not setting deadlines” for Iran could have the effect of putting the Islamic Republic at ease, a senior Israeli government official said Monday.
The statements show signs of heightened tension between Jerusalem and Washington over the Iranian nuclear issue.
“Without a clear red line Iran will not cease its race toward a nuclear weapon,” the Israeli official said, breaking Jerusalem’s day-long silence on Clinton’s comments, made during an interview with Bloomberg Radio Sunday evening.
“These sorts of statements will not stop Iran’s centrifuges from spinning; unfortunately the opposite could be true,” the official said. “This won’t deter Iran, but could put it at ease.”
Clinton’s comment raised eyebrows in Jerusalem, as did her statement that the US still considered negotiations as “by far the best approach” to preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Her words came just hours after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Jerusalem and the US were discussing what kind of “red lines” needed to be drawn to keep Iran from pursuing its nuclear program.
“I think what is important to realize is that Iran will not stop unless it sees clear determination by the democratic countries of the world and a clear red line,” Netanyahu said. “I don’t think that they see a clear red line, and I think the sooner we establish one, the greater the chances that there won’t be a need for other types of action.”
The prime minister, who has carefully avoided spelling out exactly what he means by red lines, said they could be “a clear delineation of a line which Iran cannot cross in its pursuit of the development of nuclear weapons capability. If Iran saw that, there is a chance, I won’t say it’s guaranteed, but there’s a chance they might pause before they cross that line.”
When Clinton was asked if the Obama administration would lay out sharper “red lines” for Iran or state explicitly the consequences of failing to negotiate a deal with world powers by a certain date, she said Washington was not setting deadlines.
“We’re watching very carefully about what they do, because it has always been more about their actions than their words,” she said.
While Netanyahu has never asked outright for the US to set a deadline – his red lines have been widely interpreted as benchmarks so the Iranians know that if they take certain actions they will face a predetermined response – the reaction from the government official in Jerusalem was a sign of continuing deep frustration with the Obama administration’s approach.
This frustration came to a head last month when Netanyahu got into a sharp diplomatic exchange with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro over the issue during a meeting with a visiting congressman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan).
Rogers said last week that he walked out of the meeting feeling that Israel was at its “wit’s end” over the issue.
Monday’s response was similar to the reaction in Jerusalem earlier this month to a comment by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he would not want to be “complicit” in an Israeli attack.
One official termed Dempsey’s comment “strange” and said it contradicted the White House’s continuous statements that security and defense cooperation between the two countries had never been closer.
Clinton, in her interview, said there were clear differences between Israel and the US regarding the timeline for talks.
“They’re more anxious about a quick response because they feel that they’re right in the bull’s-eye, so to speak,” she said. “But we’re convinced that we have more time to focus on these sanctions, to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good-faith negotiation.”
Clinton added that the sanctions “are having an effect.”
She also indicated that world powers involved in negotiating with Iran – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – would be meeting over the next month to “take stock of where we are.”
“It is a very challenging effort to get them to move in a way that complies with their international obligations,” she said of the Iranians. “But we believe that is still by far the best approach to take at this time.”
The secretary of state acknowledged that Israel felt an Iran with nuclear weapons posed an existential threat and said “no nation can abdicate their self-defense if they feel that they’re facing such a threat.”
In a related development, Netanyahu met for 90 minutes on Monday with President Shimon Peres for the first time since Peres said three weeks ago in a television interview that Israel should not attack Iran without US support. Those comments elicited angry responses from sources close to the prime minister, who said the president had overstepped his bounds.
Bloomberg contributed to this report.