Netanyahu Meetings At White House Focused On Iran

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Monday at the White House to discuss escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear program. Robert Siegel talks with Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and columnist for Bloomberg View.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine and Bloomberg View knows this story inside out. He's explored the thinking about Iran's nuclear program in the U.S. and in Israel. Last week, he interviewed President Obama at length about his Iran policy and his view of Israel's Iran policy. And Jeffrey Goldberg joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What's your reading of today's Obama-Netanyahu meeting?

GOLDBERG: Well, you know, they're going to try to close some gaps. In public, they're, you know, solid, wall-to-wall, we support you, you support us. Behind closed doors, the president is trying to get something from the prime minister that he's probably not going to get, which is a guarantee of forbearance that the prime minister won't order a strike on Iran anytime soon. The prime minister, of course, is trying to get the president to give him a level of specificity that the president won't give - a level of specificity, meaning when are you going to attack exactly and what are the exact conditions, what lines do the Iranians have to cross that would trigger an American attack.

So I don't know if that much is going to come out of this meeting that's consequential. It's a very consequential meeting by virtue of the fact that we might be left in a very, very ambiguous and dangerous moment after the meeting.

SIEGEL: So neither side would get stated publicly what it would most like to hear. On the other hand, by the standard of Obama-Netanyahu meetings, the visiting Israeli prime minister didn't appear to lecture the president in the Oval Office. The president...

GOLDBERG: No, he didn't.

SIEGEL: ...hasn't made a new demand on the Israelis in the West Bank, so in terms of the relationship, not that bad a meeting.

GOLDBERG: Right. This is going swimmingly by comparison, but these are guys who, I think it's fair to say, don't like each other very much, come from different political traditions, and both find each other untrustworthy in some ways. So, yes, they've been working very hard. And I think part of what President Obama has been doing for the past week, the interview that I did with him, his speech to AIPAC, is setting a tenor, setting a kind of mood in which the prime minister feels like he's not walking into a trap or into a hostile White House.

SIEGEL: I just want you to draw upon your conversation, your interview with President Obama and try to put us, as you might imagine the conversation might go, in the White House if Prime Minister Netanyahu were saying, look, we really don't believe sanctions will do anything, if he were expressing great skepticism about this, what is the case that the president makes for some confidence at all that the diplomatic and sanction - economic sanction approach might indeed deter Iran from going on to a weapon?

GOLDBERG: Well, there was a very interesting statement made by the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he talked about nuclear weapons and how they are un-Islamic. And I think the president sees that as a possibly intriguing opening. In other words, he is trying to use sanctions to force the Iranians off the nuclear track. The Iranians, obviously, for manifold reasons, don't want to be seen to be buckling under American pressure. But if the supreme leader himself is now stating that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, he's giving himself an out. He's giving himself a way to get out of this nuclear conundrum without looking like he's bending to what they consider to be the great Satan, the United States. So I think that's one argument that that he would make

I think the other argument, the key argument that he's bringing to Netanyahu, though, has to do with the price of a premature and precipitous preemptive strike on Iran. And one of the things that really struck me that the president said and this is - he indicated that he was going to say this to the prime minister as well, is that if you strike Iran too early, you will turn it into a victim, or you will at least allow it to play the role of victim.

The sanctions are stronger than they've ever been, but they will not be strong if Iran can portray itself as the victim of an aggressive preemptive attack. Russia, for instance, I'm sure will no longer honor any of the sanctions. China might break the sanctions. And Iran will still be able to pursue a nuclear program - might be able to pursue a nuclear program much faster than it has been now.

SIEGEL: Well, Jeffrey Goldberg, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and columnist for Bloomberg View.

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