Israel urges Obama to act tough on Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu urged Barack Obama to step up sanctions on Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the first cabinet meeting after the swearing-in of the new Israeli government in Jerusalem on March 18, 2013. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged President Barack Obama on Monday to step up sanctions on Iran if it pursues its nuclear drive even as Tehran 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 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 his view that time was running out to curb Iran's nuclear arms ambitions.

Obama said he was entering negotiations with Iran "clear-eyed" and was ready to test Rouhani's overtures. "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 said.

LAWMAKERS BACK SANCTIONS

Obama stopped short 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, 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.

Obama's engagement with Iran could be limited by the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and lawmakers who share Netanyahu's suspicion of Rouhani. They could block any White House effort to ease major sanctions on Iran and even impose new ones.

Netanyahu wants the Obama administration to demand specific steps by Iran, including shutting its uranium enrichment and plutonium projects and shipping out fissile material.

The Obama administration has been vague on what concessions it wants and on its verification approach.

PAST TENSIONS

The Israeli leader went out of his way to praise Obama for applying economic and military pressure that he said had brought Iran to the table. "I appreciate deeply that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal (of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons)," Netanyahu said.

Obama has focused on Iran outreach in recent days, but his attention has been divided by the looming threat of a US government shutdown just after midnight on Monday if a stalemate with congressional Republicans is not resolved.

Obama and Netanyahu have a history of difficult encounters, including a blowup in the Oval Office in 2011 when Netanyahu famously lectured the president on Jewish history.

Having secured a second term, Obama visited Israel in March, where he eased the rift and offered reassurances that he was determined to deny Iran the means to make an atomic bomb.

Further complicating matters is Obama's reinvigorated push for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Though Middle East diplomacy was overshadowed by Iran in Monday's meeting, Obama thanked Netanyahu for entering into "good faith" negotiations but said there was limited time to reach an accord.