(Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to step up sanctions on Iran if it pursues its disputed nuclear drive while negotiating with the West.
Seeking to ease Israeli concerns about U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, Obama said Tehran must prove its sincerity with actions, insisted that Washington would not ease sanctions prematurely and reaffirmed U.S. readiness to resort to military action if all else fails.
Netanyahu was hosted at the White House just 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 fueled hopes for a resolution of Iran’s decade-old nuclear standoff with the West.
Signs of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement have rattled Israel, which accuses Iran of trying to buy time and get out from under tough international sanctions while it pursues development of nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is working toward an atomic bomb.
Netanyahu signaled grudging 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 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 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. 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,” using a phrase seen as code for military action.
Israel has threatened unilateral strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites but appears unlikely to go ahead with such action any time soon as Washington, its chief ally, tests the diplomatic waters. Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.
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.
“SPOILING THE PARTY”
Before Monday’s 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 Iran.
“I appreciate deeply that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal (of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons),” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu, who said before his visit that he was coming to the United States to debunk Rouhani’s “sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” will deliver a speech on Tuesday at the United Nations, where he is expected to hammer home his skepticism.
Signaling Netanyahu’s aim to counter Rouhani’s charm offensive with one of his own, aides said the U.S.-educated Israeli leader will extend his visit by a day to conduct a series of media interviews.
Though Obama has focused on diplomatic outreach to Iran in recent days, his attention has been divided by the threat of a looming U.S. government shutdown just after midnight on Monday if a stalemate with congressional Republicans is not resolved.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal and Steve Holland; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Claudia Parsons)
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