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The White House indicated Tuesday that President Obama would resist pressure for a tougher Iran policy coming from Israel and some U.S. lawmakers who argue that Tehran should not be allowed to acquire even the capability to eventually develop a nuclear weapon.
The push to toughen the administration’s policy comes ahead of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As part of the war of nerves that the U.S. and Israel are conducting with Iran — and to some extent with each other — Netanyahu’s government has broadly hinted at using airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear sites should it determine that Tehran had developed the scientific knowledge and industrial means to build a nuclear bomb.
That is a lower threshold than the Obama administration’s so-called red line of preventing Iran from building a nuclear device. Senior Pentagon and intelligence officials have told Congress that it would take Iran several years to build a deliverable bomb, and that they don’t believe Iran’s leaders have decided to do so.
Several countries have the capability to build a weapon but have never crossed the line of trying to assemble one.
The Israelis, along with Republican presidential hopefuls, GOP senators and some hawkish Democrats, want Obama to move toward that Israeli position. They all believe he is politically vulnerable to charges of being weak on Iran and have stepped up their pressure in recent days as Obama prepares for his meeting with Netanyahu and a speech he is scheduled to give Sunday to the country’s largest pro-Israel lobbying group.
On Tuesday, however, White House officials said Obama would not make any public policy shift. Senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic moves, left open the question of whether the president might add new details on U.S. policy against Iran in his private conversations with Netanyahu.
Both U.S. and Israeli officials call an Iranian nuclear weapon unacceptable and have vowed to prevent Iran from building one. Israeli officials have broadly hinted that they might launch an airstrike this year against Iranian atomic sites. The Obama administration has used the threat of Israeli military action to prod European and Asian allies, who fear a war in the region, to go along with tough sanctions against Iran. At the same time, American officials publicly have said they believe an Israeli airstrike would be a bad idea. Those remarks have ratcheted up tension between the two countries.
Obama believes the current strategy of diplomacy and sanctions can still work and that a more explicit military threat is not helpful, the senior officials said. The sanctions, which have included strict new measures to limit Iran’s oil exports and isolate its central bank, have begun to severely harm Tehran’s economy, and Iran has made offers to renew negotiations over the nuclear issue.
“Our policy remains exactly what it was,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We are committed, as Israel is, to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
“We believe there is time and space at this point” for diplomacy to continue, Carney said. In his speech Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama will reiterate that he is taking no option off the table, but he will emphasize that Iran can still end its weapons program peacefully, Carney said.
When Iran signaled last week that it might resume negotiations on its nuclear program, 12 members of the Senate sent Obama a letter warning that Tehran should not be allowed to buy time with fruitless talks. They pressed the president to insist that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium before any talks start.
Iran refused to suspend enrichment during previous negotiations, so the precondition could doom a parlay before it begins and increase the risks of a military confrontation.
Another move this month came when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and 37 other senators, almost half of them Democrats, cosponsored a resolution that would declare “containment” cannot be U.S. policy on Iran.
The lawmakers worry that the White House would rely on containment — military deterrence and enforced isolation — rather than a military attack if Iran gets a nuclear bomb. Containment was the policy that U.S. presidents from Harry S. Trumanthrough Ronald Reagan used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War to help avoid direct military confrontation and nuclear war. The hawks on Iran argue that the Iranian regime is irrational and not subject to the sort of deterrence that worked against the Soviets.
The Senate sponsors “want to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices — peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear program or expect a military strike to end that program,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of them, told a news conference. The Senate has not voted on the proposed resolution.
The lawmakers “suspect the administration is far more comfortable with containment than they are; that’s certainly the vibe they’ve been getting for years now,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “There’s only so many times you can hear, ‘We’ve got more time,’ and not suspect [the administration's view is,] ‘We’ve got all the time in the world.’ ”
Critics of the Senate resolution fear it might later be cited as congressional authorization for a war with Iran. Some Democrats sought to amend the language to clarify that it was not intended to imply consent for war, but the sponsors rejected the suggestion.
As Obama campaigns for reelection, Republicans sense a potential issue in charges that he is weak on Iran and inattentive to a threat against Israel’s existence. The four contenders for the GOP nomination all denounced Obama’s Iran policy as dangerous during a debate Wednesday in Arizona.
“This is going to be the key foreign policy question of the election,” said a senior Senate aide who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment. “With Iraq wound up and Obama’s strong overall record on counter-terrorism, the only area where the Republicans have breathing room is Iran and Israel.”
The White House has repeatedly said military action against Iran remains an option.
Whether Americans would support a war with Iran, after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a matter of partisan debate.
Hawks point to a recent Pew Research Center poll indicating that 58% of Americans would support military action if necessary to halt an Iranian nuclear program. Pew has reported similar findings back to 2009.
But doves argue that the finding reflects a mistaken belief that a quick military campaign could eliminate the danger. They predict that public support will fade as people become aware that an attack on Iran could spark a broader Mideast war, cause oil prices to rise and lead to a global recession.