BY DAN ROBINSON – President Barack Obama says he believes there is still time to achieve a peaceful solution to the Iran nuclear issue, but that Iran’s leaders need to make a decision to forsake pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Iran, troubled Israel-Palestinian peace efforts, and the Arab Spring during a meeting at the White House.
It was their first face to face meeting since May of last year, when developments in the Arab Spring dominated the world’s attention, along with frustrations in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
The main issue in Monday’s discussions was Iran’s nuclear program and how much time remains for diplomacy and sanctions to turn Iran away from what the U.S. and Israel believe is a course toward developing a nuclear weapon.
In remarks to reporters before the talks, President Obama said it is unacceptable “for Israel to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for its destruction.”
Describing the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security as “rock solid,” Mr. Obama reiterated his view that more time is needed for sanctions and other pressure on Iran to work.
“We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranian regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far,” said the president.
Mr. Obama said dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran include a possible nuclear arms race in the region, a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists, or a regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism “feeling it can act even more aggressively or with impunity as a consequence of its nuclear power.”
Pressure on Iran will be tightened, he said, adding he reserves all options. Mr. Obama repeated that his policy is not containment, but prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
There was no direct mention of so-called “red lines,” steps by Iran, such as specific movement toward building a nuclear weapon, that might trigger military action by Israel or the United States.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed what he called longstanding principles in the U.S.-Israel relationship, including recognition that Israel has a right to act on its own to preserve its security.
“Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself, against any threat, and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to make its own decisions,” said Netanyahu. “I believe that is why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve right to defend itself.”
Mr. Netanyahu said his “supreme responsibility” is to ensure that “Israel remains the master of its fate.”
President Obama said he and Prime Minister Netanyahu prefer to resolve the issue diplomatically, understanding the costs of any military action.
Offering what he called an “assurance” to the American and Israeli peoples, he said the U.S. and Israel will be in “close, constant consultation” during what he said he expects will be “a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.”
The talks came as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said his agency has “serious concerns” about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
President Obama also mentioned what he called “incredible” changes in the Middle East and North Africa, “terrible bloodshed” in Syria, and democratic transition in Egypt. Israel, he said, remains an island of democracy in the midst of all of this.
Mr. Obama said he would discuss with Mr. Netanyahu how to “potentially bring about a calmer set of discussions” between Israelis and Palestinians for a peaceful solution of their conflict, something he said the Israeli leader remains committed to achieving.