WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to keep sanctions in place against Iran and to even tighten them if Tehran continues its nuclear advances during a coming round of negotiations with the West.
Seeking to ease Israeli concerns about U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, Obama said Tehran must prove its sincerity with actions, not just words, and vowed to keep all options on the table, including the possibility of a military response.
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 ease international sanctions so it can pursue development of nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is working toward an atomic bomb.
“In fact, 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 and praised the U.S. leader for his response so far to Iran’s outreach.
Obama said he was ready to test Rouhani’s overtures but would insist on “the highest level of verification” of Iran curbing its nuclear program before providing what he called “sanctions relief.” 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 made clear that the United States remained open to use of military force if diplomacy fails.
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 with Iran.
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.