PM to seek broad agreement with Obama on Iran

Ross: Tell US before striking Iran; PM looking for signs that when Obama says "all options on the table," he means it.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER,
March 2, 2012 01:01
PM Netanyahu sitting with US President Obama

PM Netanyahu sitting with US President Obama 311. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)

 
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WASHINGTON – Israel does not want to limit its options in dealing with Iran and will seek broad understandings with the United States about possible courses of action rather than specific assurances in upcoming White House talks, Israeli and American sources said on Thursday.

“The more explicit commitments you seek from one side, the more you’re going to be asked to make commitments of your own,” said Dennis Ross, until recently the top White House adviser on Iran, warning of demands the US would make of Israel should it go down that path.

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“The notion of great specificity on either end is something that is overstated,” he said.

Ross also said all the Israeli prime ministers he had known during his 30-year career “want Israel in the end to take the steps it needs to take to deal with its national security as it defines it.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who left on Thursday for a North American trip that will include an Oval Office visit on Monday, is no exception. He has made it clear to interlocutors that Israel maintaining maximum freedom of action will be a key message in his talks with US President Barack Obama.

He is also understood to be looking for concrete signs that when the Obama administration says all options are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, there are actions from the US to give that statement credibility.

The Americans’ swift response to Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, including the repositioning of US Navy vessels, was one such sign, and actions that are disruptive of the Iranian nuclear program, including sabotage efforts, would also be welcome.

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Ross cautioned, however, that the US would want to be told ahead of time of any military action Israel took and that taking that decision too soon would be a mistake.

“We do have lots of assets in the area, and I think every administration that I’ve been a part of would want to know what they can know as soon as they can know it,” said Ross, who has worked under Republicans and Democrats, though he now serves in a private capacity as counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Also on Thursday, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the US must assure Israel that if Jerusalem delayed military moves against Iran’s nuclear program, Washington would use its own might to stop Tehran from weaponizing its nuclear program. Obama must “shift the Israeli defense establishment’s thinking from a focus on the ‘zone of immunity’ to a ‘zone of trust,’” Yadlin wrote.

Last month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak alluded to Israel’s “red line,” describing it as the point when Iran acquires a “zone of immunity” from an effective Israeli attack.

Ross said that if a strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities took place after crippling sanctions and diplomacy had failed, there could be enough international support for such action that the global effort to keep sanctions and isolation in place could hold, which would constrain Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program.

He predicted that timelines for how long to give sanctions to work and what would constitute substantial achievement in diplomacy would be a major focus of Netanyahu’s discussions with Obama.

He said that negotiations with Tehran were almost certain to go ahead, and that recent declarations by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that nuclear weapons were a “great sin” could be a sign that he was trying to prepare the Iranian public and save face if a deal were reached.

But Ross also hardened the rhetoric over why acceptance of Iranian nuclear weapons was not an option.

“You’re going to have a nuclear-armed Middle East,” he said of a presumed regional arms race. “And if you’re going to have a nuclear-armed Middle East, the prospect of there being a nuclear war would be quite high.”

Netanyahu is also expected to warn about the consequences of a nuclear Iran in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy meeting in Washington next week, which was the genesis of his visit this time.

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Iranian threat

The prime minister, who left just after midnight on Thursday, will first stop in Ottawa to consult with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a sign of the close friendship between the two countries, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who was in Israel last month, is scheduled to greet Netanyahu at the airport when his plane arrives at 6 a.m.

Netanyahu, who will stay at the official guest residence, is scheduled to meet with Harper privately a few hours later, and then hold a joint press conference. On Sunday morning, he is scheduled to meet with Canadian Jewish leaders and opposition leader Bob Rae of the Liberal Party.

Netanyahu is due to arrive in Washington on Sunday afternoon, after both Obama and President Shimon Peres have addressed AIPAC, and he will stay at Blair House.

Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama will be the ninth between the two leaders, and for now a joint statement is scheduled after the meeting, but not a press conference.

The prime minister’s AIPAC address and those of the other speakers – who will include via video stream Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on Tuesday, the last day of the conference – are expected to focus on Iran.

The Islamic Republic will be a key part of the lobbying activity undertaken by the 13,000-plus expected conference- goers, as they visit with their members of Congress to push for more sanctions and support for an aggressive posture on stopping a nuclear weapon.

An Israel Project poll released ahead of the conference found that 82 percent of the American public supports increased sanctions, with only 16% opposing them. However, only 32%, versus 67%, thought diplomacy and sanctions would halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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