Both leaders took part in the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum – Obama on Saturday, Netanyahu by satellite link on Sunday – with Iran dominating both appearances.
Technical experts from Iran, the U.S. and the other five powers involved in the negotiations are due to meet in Vienna from Monday to discuss implementation of the agreement reached on November 24 that offers Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program – including the actual start date for a six-month interim phase during which the parties will try to reach a comprehensive deal.
The administration is urging Congress to hold off on fresh sanctions over that period to give the diplomatic effort the chance to succeed.
Obama told the Saban Forum that, when faced with those who say Iran can’t be trusted and the administration was being naïve, “what I try to describe to them is not the choice between this deal and the ideal, but the choice between this deal and other alternatives.”
“If I had an option, if we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid of all its military capabilities, I would take it,” he said, then added, “But that particular option is not available.”
Obama said he could envisage an end-state agreement that leaves Iran with a “modest” uranium-enrichment program, but involving such intrusive inspections that it would not give Iran nuclear weapons breakout capability.
But Netanyahu suggested that a more ambitious agreement was not out of the question, if the right pressure was brought to bear.
“We all agree that after a couple of years of tough sanctions, Iran finally began to negotiate seriously. Because of the pressure, what seemed impossible yesterday became possible today,” he said. “We should not assume that more and tougher sanctions won’t lead to a better deal. What seems impossible today could become possible tomorrow.”
“Unlike the recent interim deal,” Netanyahu said, “any final deal must bring about the termination of Iran’s military nuclear capability.”
He characterized the Iranian regime as the world’s “most dangerous.”
While it may have diplomats who wear ties, speak good English and use PowerPoint presentations, he said, when “the power on the throne is committed to a radical ideology and pursues it and talks about it again and again and again, then I say: Beware.”
“We’ve learned in our experience, the experience of the Jewish people, to take seriously those who speak about our annihilation, and we will do and I will do what is necessary to protect the Jewish state and the future of the Jewish people.”
In contrast, Obama said that although the U.S. must remain vigilant and not be naïve about the dangers posed by the regime, “we have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran, like any country, to change over time” – even if that may not be likely.
“Wherever we see the impulses of a people to move away from conflict, violence, and towards diplomatic resolution of conflicts, we should be ready and prepared to engage them – understanding, though, that, ultimately it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”
Obama and Netanyahu in their respective appearances both spoke about troubling Iranian conduct and policies beyond the nuclear issue.
Obama said the U.S. would continue to contest Iranian engagement in terrorism and behavior detrimental to the U.S. and Israel.
But if the nuclear threat was removed from Iran’s arsenal, he said, that would enable the U.S. to “defeat some of their agenda throughout the region without worrying that somehow it’s going to escalate or trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.”
He compared the approach to President Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons “even as we were still contesting them around the world.”
Again signaling the desire for more ambitious goals for an agreement with Iran, Netanyahu argued that conduct like its threats to destroy Israel and its arming of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, should also be on the agenda, “part and parcel” of the nuclear negotiations.
Furthermore, “it’s not just about Israel. Iran continues to trample the rights of its own people, to participate in the mass slaughter in Syria, to engage in terrorism across five continents and to destabilize regimes throughout the Middle East.”
Despite the obvious differences between Obama and Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister thanked the president “for his commitment to our strong alliance,” and called the bond between the two nations “the crucial anchor of stability” in a turbulent and unstable Middle East.
Obama acknowledged there were times he and Netanyahu would “have different tactical perspectives
“And that is understandable, because Israel cannot contract out its security. In light of the history that the people of Israel understand all too well, they have to make sure that they are making their own assessments about what they need to do to protect themselves,” he said. “And we respect that.”