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Update 1:22 p.m. via Associated Press: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged President Barack Obama to keep tough economic sanctions on Iran in place, even as the U.S. weighs a potential warming of relations and a restart of nuclear negotiations with Tehran’s new government.
“If diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place,” Netanyahu said during an Oval Office meeting with Obama.
The two leaders met at the White House just days after Obama’s historic phone call with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The call marked the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.
Obama credited the flurry of U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy with bringing Rouhani to the negotiating table. While he said it was important to “test diplomacy,” the president also said that Rouhani must back up his more conciliatory words with actions that give the international community confidence that Iran is not seeking to produce a nuclear weapon.
“We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed,” Obama said, adding that while he preferred a diplomatic solution, all options remain on the table, including military action.
12 p.m.: Don’t trust Iran’s diplomatic “sweet talk!” That’s the message Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brings to his meeting today with President Obama.
The message comes after President Obama’s telephone conversation Friday, the first direct conversation between any top U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979, when Iranians charged the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage.
Many in Israel worry that Iran’s new interest in diplomacy is a ruse meant to allow the country to continue to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has in the past made direct threats to Israel.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Truth in the face of sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles. That is what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised he will bring in talks today with President Obama and top U.S. leaders. Netanyahu is referring to the sudden surge of diplomacy between the United States and Iran. Many in Israel worry that Iran's diplomatic overtures are a ruse meant to allow the country to developing nuclear weapons. Iran, after all, in the past has made direct threats to Israel.
And Netanyahu arrives in Washington today, just three days after President Obama spoke on the telephone with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between any top United States and Iranian leaders since 1979. That, of course, was the year when Iranians charged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
So what does Netanyahu's skepticism mean for U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East? Let's explore that question with Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center. He's served as an adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state. Aaron, welcome back to the program.
AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: So let's, first of all, set this context of Benjamin Netanyahu's visit. We've seen a very quick development of relations between the United States and Iran or at least diplomatic developments. So catch us up. Where do we find ourselves today?
MILLER: Well, there's been a veritable transformation in terms of tone, clearly, and message, as well as process. You have, for the first time, not only direct contact, repeated direct contact at the most senior levels; a phone call with the president, hours spent between the Iranian foreign minister and our Secretary of State John Kerry. You have a commitment now to begin a search for a comprehensive solution on the nuclear issue. All these things are new.
The real question is whether this is, in fact, a transformation or is it a transaction? In other words, are we talking here about something that is truly meaningful that will lead to a fundamental change in the way Iran and the United States and the international community relate to the nuclear issue? Or are goals and objectives going to be much more limited, and in the view of the prime minister, perhaps key to an empty room?
That is the thing that needs to be tested. That is the thing that needs to be determined. And that, I would argue, is the thing that cannot right now, whatever analysis the Israelis, the Americans, the Europeans bring to the problem, it cannot be prejudged.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. And...
MILLER: Stakes are so high that it is worth spending the time to determine whether or not there is way to actually - well, whether the talking cure can be applied. That's the issue.
CHAKRABARTI: And in that context, Benjamin Netanyahu perhaps brings the heaviest voice or loudest voice of skepticism that the Iranian supreme leader, you know, really has any desire to drop the country's military aspects regarding its nuclear ambitions. But explain to us - I mean, you've said and written that the United States, in any case, is not likely to cut any deal with Iran that would be bad for Israel.
MILLER: Well, yeah. My view is that you're going to have a deal that is both good for the United States and Israel or you're not going to have a deal at all. And there are many reasons for that. Primarily because the U.S. has a - and this administrations president has a vital national interest in coming to an agreement that essentially turns a putative nuclear program with military aspects into a program that is peaceful and is verified to be peaceful. That seems to me the overriding reason.
Forget the political constraints that this Congress - if there's unanimity on any foreign policy issue today, there is unanimity on Iran, there is unanimity and consensus on not giving the Iranians the benefit of the doubt and unanimity on signing with the Israelis. One other point, and that is the president's own commitment, his own red line, in which he's vowed to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The consequences of not adhering to that red line probably means Israeli action.
And Israeli action in these circumstances will mean domestic complications, to say the least, for the United States; falling financial markets, rising oil prices. So it could actually threaten, as the government shutdown is doing or the debt limit issue, an already fragile American recovery. So this administration has a major stake in getting this right and that - getting it right does not mean leaving an unhappy, dissatisfied, nervous and edgy Israel. The question becomes whether or not the concessions that need to be made by either side are doable and that, that I - that I think no one knows about.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's talk for a moment about the personal relations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. I mean, they've had a history of some strain between them, including in 2011 when Netanyahu basically had this minor blowup in the Oval Office, lecturing President Obama about Jewish history. So tell us about the personal element of their meeting this week.
MILLER: You know, I've worked with a lot of Israeli prime ministers in my capacity as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations (unintelligible) secretaries of state. I don't think I've ever seen a relationship more dysfunctional for a greater period of time than the one between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. That was in 2009 and 2010. Much of the tension in that relationship has faded away, in large part, because the president concluded earlier this year, I suspect, that the - his shaky relationship with the prime minister was hurting him politically. It allowed the Republicans to hammer him and it raised many concerns among members of the Democratic Party, his own, whether or not he was sufficiently pro-Israel.
So I think that drove the president to make a visit to Israel to say things, to do things that has fundamentally, I think, put to rest the notion in the eyes of many Israelis and certainly the pro-Israeli community here, at least the mainstream community, that this president is somehow hostile with the state of Israel.
If this president wants to get anything done in this region in the next three years - and remember, his U.N. General Assembly speech identified two issues that he wants to devote time to: one is the Iranian issue, the nuclear issue, and the second is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If he wants to get anything done on those two issues, he's going to have to find a way to work - and not at a distance but relatively closely - with the prime minister of Israel.
MILLER: So that's another reason why this relationship has improved.
CHAKRABARTI: In the last 30 seconds or so that we have here, I read a quote from an Israeli official, who said, Netanyahu does not care if he's the only one ruining the party, the party being these remarkable diplomatic overtures from Iran to the United States. In the last couple of seconds we have, is there a risk of an opportunity lost here given the change from, you know, the last time the president talked with an Iranian leader was 1979.
MILLER: Well, there is if, in fact, the Israelis and the Americans (technical difficulty). Can Iran (technical difficulty) make the United States an offer that the U.S. and Israel cannot refuse? And can the U.S. meet Iranian needs and requirements? No one knows the answer, but we're going to find out.
CHAKRABARTI: Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thank you so much. We'll be back in a moment. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.