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From Syria, now to its strongest ally in the region: Iran. Next Monday, President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. And Netanyahu is expected to argue that time is running out on peaceful efforts to discourage Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In return, President Obama is expected to say Israel can count on U.S. support but should give sanctions and diplomacy time to work before military action. NPR's Tom Gjelten previews the administration's case.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: After years of relatively ineffective sanctions on Iran, the United States and Europe have finally settled on a series of measures that really do seem to be working. The latest came in legislation co-authored by Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. At first, he wasn't sure the Obama administration was really committed to a tough sanctions regime, but now he sounds convinced.
SENATOR BOB MENENDEZ: Letting countries throughout the world know that we were serious about the enforcements of these sanctions has already cost Iran in terms of its economy, the value of its currency.
GJELTEN: So that's one way Iran is hurting, in its economy. Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, highlights another: The uprising in Syria may mean President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's friend, is in serious trouble.
CLIFF KUPCHAN: Syria is the only large ally of Iran in the region. If Assad goes and even as Assad weakens, Iran's ability to project power, its prestige in the region and its connections to its main proxy, Hezbollah, will be weakened.
GJELTEN: Hezbollah, with its weapons and militia in Lebanon, provides Iran a way to retaliate against Israel for any attack but not if Iran loses the Syria link to Hezbollah. Between these economic and political setbacks, Kupchan says time is not on Iran's side. He imagines how the Obama administration may counter an Israeli argument that military action is needed soon.
KUPCHAN: Oil sanctions are in place. The Iranian economy is declining. We've got them in a hole. Let's not hit them now because it may not be necessary.
GJELTEN: Not necessary because Iran could yet back down. Administration officials have gone out of their way in the last few days to emphasize that the United States is in fact prepared to take military action to stop Iran from building a bomb. President Obama told The Atlantic magazine in an interview released today that Iran and Israel should understand that, quote, "As president of the United States, I don't bluff." But at the same time, the White House says sanctions and diplomacy could yet work. Here's what spokesman Jay Carney said this week.
JAY CARNEY: We do have visibility into their programs, and Iran has not broken out and started to pursue a weapon. So there is time and space to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing since the president took office.
GJELTEN: But will Prime Minister Netanyahu buy the White House argument? Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the administration's case would be stronger if it had moved already against firms in violation of U.S. and European sanctions.
MARK DUBOWITZ: I think at this point that the administration would have used the ample authority that this president has to send a high-profile message both to Teheran and to Jerusalem that this administration is serious about economic warfare.
GJELTEN: Though he is a big believer in sanctions, Senator Menendez says if they don't work, the United States should be prepared to join Israel in taking military action against Iran's nuclear sites. Along with the White House, he thinks there is still time to consider that option, though he recognizes Israel may have a different view.
MENENDEZ: I think the only fundamental difference here is not whether or not we seek to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons. It's the timing which we have. And, of course, America has the greatest military ability in the world, and so therefore, the time for us is somewhat different than some of our allies.
GJELTEN: So the stage is set for a tense U.S.-Israeli conversation next Monday. President Obama may persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to be patient, but only by promising that if the time for action does come, the United States will be at Israel's side. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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