Anne Penketh: Obama and Peres put on show of unity

President Barack Obama and the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, have put on a determined show of unity to further raise the pressure on Tehran, warning Iran that it faces a real risk of military strikes if its leaders continue down the path towards a nuclear weapons capability.

Addressing the Israeli lobby group AIPAC on the eve of a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been widely billed as a showdown between the two leaders over recourse to the threat of force, Obama spoke to at least three audiences yesterday.

To Iran, he said the mullahs should have "no doubt about the resolve of the United States". He also hinted that Washington might not oppose unilateral Israeli strikes, saying that the Iranians "should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs". He added: "I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say."

To Netanyahu, the President said bluntly: hold fire. There had been "too much loose talk about war" and there was still time for a diplomatic solution. "I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy - backed by pressure - to succeed."

Third, to the Republican candidates who have criticised him over aid to Israel - Mitt Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus" - the President spoke of the Administration's "unprecedented" commitment to Israeli security.

Obama's approach could be summarised in the seven words at the end of his speech in which he quoted the late President Teddy Roosevelt, saying, "Speak softly; carry a big stick." Until now this has not been the approach of the Israeli Government, whose public pronouncements have increased the fears of a war on Iran - and, as Obama pointed out, raised the price of oil on which the Iranians depend for their nuclear programme.

Speaking just before Obama and opening the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Peres went out of his way to praise the President's support for Israel and said that he had identified him as "a born leader" at their first meeting. Regarding US and Israeli policy, Peres said: "There is no space between us." Iran "will be stopped", he stressed.

Before Netanyahu arrived in Washington, there had been reports that he would press Obama for an explicit threat of military action, on the ground that sanctions could be effective only if accompanied by a credible threat of force.

Substantive policy differences remain between Obama and Netanyahu which were not raised by either side in the speeches yesterday. In particular regarding the timing of military strikes and the parameters of a diplomatic solution which will be the topic of the next set of talks with Iran, involving the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.

In recent days Israel has been adamant that Iran must halt uranium enrichment activities before the talks with the so-called P5+1 can begin. However that condition has been rejected by the White House as P5+1 diplomats prepare to resume the talks with Iranian officials who have steadfastly refused to compromise on Iran's treaty right to enrich uranium, despite tough economic sanctions.

Netanyahu has warned that Iran will use another round of talks with the P5+1 to play for time as it has in the past, while continuing its nuclear activities at the Fordow plant where uranium is now being enriched to 20 per cent. This is short of the 93 per cent enrichment needed to produce weapons grade fuel, but the Iranians have mastered the most difficult part of the fuel cycle by moving to the 20 per cent needed for medical isotopes.

For now, the strategy is clearly for both countries to publicly speak with one voice to Iran. The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu is expected to underscore that resolve. Those looking for a public showdown between the two leaders will have to wait.

- NZ Herald

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