Obama Reassures Israel Lobby On His Iran Policy

On Sunday, President Obama spoke to AIPAC, an influential pro-Israel group. The appearance came on the eve of Obama's White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama said his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama meets Israel's prime minister today. The challenge he faces in private talks with Benjamin Netanyahu may resemble the challenge he faced yesterday in a very public forum.

MONTAGNE: The president addressed AIPAC, a pro-Israeli group. He wanted to talk tough about Israel's enemy Iran, but he did not want to embrace demands that it's time to go to war against Iran.

INSKEEP: Iran has said it does not want nuclear weapons, only peaceful nuclear energy. Doubtful world powers are demanding reassurance and intensifying sanctions this year. One of many questions is how long to wait to see if the sanctions work.

NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been one of his top foreign policy concerns ever since he took office. In his speech to AIPAC, he stressed that if Iran were allowed to develop nuclear weapons, it would not only threaten Israel, it would also raise the risk of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and touch off an arms race in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel's security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: When the stakes are that high, Mr. Obama says, he's shown a clear willingness to use military force to protect America's interests.

OBAMA: Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: At the same time, Mr. Obama said, he has an obligation to use force only when necessary. And he suggested Iran's nuclear program has not yet reached that point. He called for patience, noting that Iran is increasingly isolated, facing tough economic sanctions that are set to get even tougher later this year.

OBAMA: I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed.

HORSLEY: But Israel may have a different timetable. Unlike the United States, Israel does not have an ocean between it an Iran's missiles. And its military does not have the same late-strike capability that America's does to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities at the last minute.

Speaking to AIPAC just before Mr. Obama yesterday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said his country won't take any chances with its self-defense.

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: Peace is always our first option. But if we are forced to fight, trust me, we shall prevail.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Peres praised Mr. Obama as a born leader and a friend to Israel in the White House. Mr. Obama returned the kind words, announcing plans to present Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year.

Mr. Obama has a testier relationship with Israel's prime minister, Netanyahu, with whom he meets today. The two have clashed at times over Israeli settlements and the course of the Palestinian peace process. Mr. Obama said yesterday he makes no apologies for pursuing peace.

But the president also catalogued occasions when he's taken Israel's side in hostile circumstances, from defending Israel before the UN General Assembly, to intervening on behalf of people trapped in the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: At every crucial juncture, at every fork in the road, we have been there for Israel, every single time.

HORSLEY: Republican presidential hopefuls have repeatedly tried to sow doubts about Mr. Obama's support for Israel, just as they've challenged his willingness to get tough on Iran.

Here's Newt Gingrich yesterday on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

NEWT GINGRICH: You've had no evidence that the president is prepared to take steps to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. They talk, and the Iranians build. They talk, and the Iranians build. I mean, we're being played for fools.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama warns against such divisive foreign policy rhetoric. He won loud applause from AIPAC yesterday when he said the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too important to be turned into a political football.

OBAMA: In the United States, our support for Israel is bipartisan, and that is how it should stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also cautioned that even in this politically charged season, this is not the time for bluster. Already, he said, there's been too much loose talk of war with Iran, talk that only helps the Iranian government economically by driving up the price of oil.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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