WASHINGTON — Highlighting their different views of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, President Barack Obama insisted Monday that diplomacy still has time to halt the effort, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reasserted Israel's right to take unilateral military action, saying the Jewish state must remain "the master of its fate."
Obama spent two hours in discussion with Netanyahu that was dominated by the crisis over the nuclear program that Iran claims is for peaceful purposes and that the United States, Israel and other powers charge is covertly developing the capability to build nuclear weapons.
A new report by a former U.N. nuclear inspector said that it is unlikely that Iran will move to build a warhead this year. But the report added that Iran could now build a crude bomb and that only a "negotiated long-term diplomatic resolution" can ensure that it doesn't break out of the international treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear arms.
Speaking with reporters before their talks, Obama and Netanyahu were more relaxed with each other compared to their last meeting, in May 2011, when Obama sat silently as Netanyahu sternly rejected a U.S. plan to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Yet Netanyahu left no doubt about the seriousness of Monday's talks. Looking directly at Obama, he reiterated Israel's right to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, which the Jewish state — estimated to have several hundred nuclear warheads of its own that it refuses to acknowledge officially — views as an existential threat.
He didn't once refer to international sanctions aimed at compelling Iran to comply with U.N. demands to suspend uranium enrichment — which produces fuel for reactors and bombs — or European-led diplomatic efforts aimed at trading a halt to the program for financial and other incentives.
"Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat," Netanyahu said. "After all, that's the very purpose of the Jewish state: to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that's why my supreme responsibility is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate."
He was expected to repeat that theme in an evening speech to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group.
Addressing the 13,000 conference attendees on Sunday, Obama insisted that he wouldn't hesitate to use force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, although he thinks there's time yet for economic sanctions and diplomacy to bring Iran to terms before resorting to force. He also said that he is not pursuing a containment policy, the approach the United States used for decades to check the influence of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union.
As he and Netanyahu sat next to each other Monday in straight-backed chairs in the Oval Office, Obama repeated those positions, as well as U.S. concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an arms race in the oil-rich Middle East, and he raised the possibility of Tehran slipping a warhead to a terrorist group.
"That's why we have worked so diligently to set up the most crippling sanctions ever with respect to Iran," Obama said. "We do believe that there is still 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 that they have not made thus far."
Netanyahu told Obama that Iran sees no difference between the United States and Israel.
"For them, you are the Great Satan, we're the Little Satan. For them we are you and you are us," he said.
It was clear, however, that Obama wants to avoid using military force, concerned that striking Iran's nuclear facilities wouldn't terminate its program and would trigger Iranian retaliation, such as blockading petroleum shipments through the Persian Gulf, which would deal a blow to the still-shaky global economy.
He said that he would continue working "on the diplomatic front" to tighten sanctions that the U.S. says are beginning to hurt Iran seriously, creating a hard currency shortage that has interrupted the oil sales on which the Iranian economy depends and forcing a devaluation of Iran's currency.
A senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the talks, said the U.S. assessment is that Iran doesn't yet have the ability to assemble a warhead. Tehran would first have to expel U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors before proceeding, which would alert the international community, he said.
The Israelis, however, fear that Iran is entering a "zone of immunity" beyond which its nuclear facilities will be too heavily defended for Israel to destroy, and they think that only the U.S. military has the ability to take them out.
"The U.S. sees that we have time, we have superior military capabilities, we have time to see if sanctions play themselves out," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. "The Israeli fear is that you might not know if they convert" their facilities from producing low-enriched uranium to producing the highly enriched uranium required for a bomb.
In his new report, former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that Iran already has the ability to make highly enriched uranium and a crude nuclear weapon.
But, the report continued, sanctions, covert intelligence operations and intense international scrutiny of the Iranian program have dissuaded Tehran from building a warhead, and it is "unlikely" to do so in 2012 "in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so."
Only "a negotiated long-term resolution" can ensure that Iran doesn't build nuclear weapons, the report said. It called for a combination of tougher sanctions and "creative diplomatic methods of achieving a compromise," such as reviving a proposal to freeze sanctions in return for Iran freezing uranium enrichment.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY