WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that he would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but their meeting concluded with U.S. officials unsure whether the president had succeeded in persuading the Israelis to hold off on unilateral military action.
The leaders met for about two hours in the Oval Office at a crucial juncture in Obama's effort to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions and win the trust of Israel, his closest ally in the Middle East. Israeli officials afterward called the talks "positive" and said both sides agreed on the need for continuing economic and political pressure on Iran.
Administration officials said Obama made clear to Netanyahu that his policy is not to contain an Iranian nuclear arsenal but to prevent Iran's leaders from developing one. Obama also assured Netanyahu that Israel had the right to act in its own national security interests.
"We do believe that there is a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians' regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision they have not made thus far," Obama said, with Netanyahu sitting at his side. "I reserve all options, and my policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons."
Monday night, in comments to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu vigorously asserted his country's right to defend itself against an Iranian nuclear threat.
Netanyahu's tough talk suggests he would attack Iranian nuclear facilities alone if he thinks Israel needs to do that.
He said that Israel has "patiently waited" for diplomacy and sanctions to work.
He said, "None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."
His approach was starkly at odds with Obama's appeal earlier Monday to give diplomacy and sanctions more time to work before resorting to force.
In public and private statements in recent days, Obama urged Israel to refrain from a military strike, a move that many in the administration fear would set off a regional war in the volatile Middle East.
GOP LEADER SUGGESTS FORCE: The Senate Republican leader said Monday that the United States should use overwhelming military force against Iran if American intelligence shows that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon or it has started to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said President Obama's pronouncement that the administration keeps "all options on the table" is a talking point, not a policy. McConnell spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night.
Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.