Netanyahu to Obama: Tighten sanctions if Iran defies West

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged US President Barack Obama yesterday to step up sanctions on Iran if it pursues its nuclear drive even as it exchanges overtures with Washington and restarts negotiations with the West.

Seeking to reassure Israel about the emerging 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 visited the White House three days after Obama and new 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 standoff with the West.

Signs of US-Iranian rapprochement have rattled Israel, which accuses Iran of trying to buy time and get out from under tough international sanctions while it seeks to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is working toward an atomic bomb.

Netanyahu, whose aides had said he would warn Obama in private not to trust Rouhani’s charm offensive, signalled grudging acquiescence to Obama’s outreach to Iran. But he appeared to demand that Tehran offer immediate concessions by suspending sensitive nuclear projects or else face even greater international pressure.

“It is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened,” Netanyahu told reporters a day before he was due to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Netanyahu brandished a cartoon time-bomb in his UN speech last year to illustrate how, according to him, time was running out to curb Iran’s nuclear arms ambitions. Israeli sources predict he will opt for a less flashy approach due to the delicate nature of the diplomatic outreach with Iran but will still stress his skepticism.

Obama said he was entering negotiations with Iran “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 tighter sanctions if Iran continues work on nuclear weapons. Existing international sanctions have done serious damage to Iran’s economy, including its oil sector.

Even as Netanyahu called for a “credible military threat” to pressure Iran to comply, Obama insisted: “We take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran.”

Israel has threatened unilateral strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites but appears unlikely to go ahead any time soon as Washington, its chief ally, tests the diplomatic waters. Israel is believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.

Though Obama and Netanyahu have had strained relations in the past, they showed no signs of tension in their latest encounter. They sat side-by-side in the Oval Office, each following the other’s words carefully and occasionally exchanging smiles. Including a working lunch afterwards, the two spent more than 2-1/2 hours together.

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