March 4, 2012 7:29 pm

Obama warns of ‘loose talk’ on Iran

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Barack Obama criticised “loose talk” about a war with Iran but promised a lobby group: “I have Israel’s back”.

The US president used a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to try to head off a pre-emptive Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme and to make the case for negotiation.

“The opportunity still remains for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed,” Mr Obama said on Sunday. “Now is not the time for bluster, but a time to let our increased pressure sink in.”

Amid growing speculation that Israel might try to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Mr Obama has come under intense pressure, amplified by the Republican presidential primaries, to toughen his stance on military action against Iran. Tehran will top the agenda when Mr Obama meets Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, at the White House on Monday.

In a carefully worded response to the president's speech, Mr Netanyahu said the “most important” passage was one in which Mr Obama endorsed Israel's rights to defend itself against any threat.

“I very much appreciated the fact that President Obama reiterated his position that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that all options are on the table,” he said.

He added: “Perhaps most important of all, I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. I appreciate all his statements and I look forward to discussing them further with President Obama tomorrow.”

With this speech and an interview he gave last week, Mr Obama used a more emphatic tone to repeat his promise that military action was an option in the last resort if all else failed. “I don’t bluff,” he told The Atlantic magazine.

However Mr Obama has so far not detailed in public any of the conditions that might provoke a US military strike – something the Israeli government has been pushing him to do.

“The intention [of Mr Obama] is to suggest that there has been a narrowing of the differences between Israel and the US position. That is the spin that they want,” said Daniel Levy at the New America Foundation. “But he has still given himself wiggle room in the future.”

The more important concession is Mr Obama’s apparent rejection of the idea that a nuclear Iran can be managed by a strategy of “containment”, the mixture of nuclear deterrence and military presence that was used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“I do not have a policy of containment, I have a policy of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said on Sunday, to loud applause.

Mr Netanyahu said: “I also appreciated the fact that he [Mr Obama] made clear that when it comes to a nuclear armed Iran, containment is simply not an option.”

The Obama administration has at times appeared to flirt with the idea of containment, with Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, talking in 2009 about extending a “nuclear umbrella” to the Middle East in response to Iran.

Many Israelis object to talk of containment, partly because they fear it means the acceptance of a nuclear Iran. A recently introduced Senate resolution, which already has strong support from both parties, urges the Obama administration to reject a containment policy.

Yet Mr Obama also endorsed one of the main arguments for containment when he said that survival of the regime was the central motivation of Iran’s leadership. The assessment is a crucial one because containment relies upon the idea that the threat of nuclear destruction can deter a country from actually using nuclear weapons.

Mr Netanyahu has described the Iranian leadership as a “messianic cult” and the Israeli government was angered when General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, described Iran two weeks ago as “rational”.

“As we look at how they operate and the decisions they have made over the last three decades, they care about the regime’s survival,” Mr Obama told The Atlantic.

In a more indirect concession, Mr Obama made no mention on Sunday of territory swaps as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. It was Mr Obama’s endorsement of such an idea before last year’s Aipac conference which prompted a sharp public disagreement with Mr Netanyahu.

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