US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House yesterday.
WASHINGTON: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged US President Barack Obama yesterday to step up sanctions on Iran if it pursues its disputed nuclear drive while negotiating with the West.
Seeking to ease Israeli concerns about US diplomatic engagement with Iran, Obama said Tehran must prove its sincerity with actions, insisted that Washington would not ease sanctions prematurely and reaffirmed US readiness to resort to military action if all else fails.
Netanyahu was hosted at the White House just three days after Obama and newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone in the highest-level contact between the countries in more than three decades. The call fuelled hopes for a resolution of Iran’s decade-old nuclear stand-off with the West.
Netanyahu signalled Israeli acquiescence to Obama’s outreach to Iran but appeared to demand that Tehran offer immediate concessions by suspending sensitive nuclear projects or else face greater international pressure.
“It is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear programme during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened,” Netanyahu said as he sat side by side with Obama.
Obama said he was entering negotiations with Iran “very clear-eyed” and was ready to test Rouhani’s overtures. But he said: “Anything we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for.”
He stopped short, however, of agreeing to Netanyahu’s new call for stepped-up sanctions if Iran continues work on nuclear weapons.
Even as Netanyahu called for a “credible military threat” to pressure Iran to comply, Obama insisted: “We take no options off the table,” using a phrase seen as code for military action.
Though Obama and Netanyahu have had strained relations in the past, they appeared relatively comfortable with one another in their latest Oval Office encounter. Each followed the other’s words carefully as they spoke in turn and they occasionally exchanged smiles.
Before the White House talks, a Netanyahu aide said he did not care that he was perceived as “spoiling the party,” referring to the optimism stirred up in Washington over ending decades of estrangement between the United States and Iran.
Netanyahu wants the Obama administration to demand specific steps by Iran, including shutting down its uranium enrichment and plutonium projects and shipping out their fissile material.
The Obama administration has been vague on what concessions it wants from Iran, and a source close to the White House said the president had been expected to resist Israeli pressure for a precise time limit for diplomacy to produce an agreement.
Despite any differences behind closed doors, Obama and Netanyahu sought publicly to stress common ground on the Iran issue.
“I appreciate deeply that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal (of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons),” Netanyahu said.