WASHINGTON — With Israel warning that it may mount a military strike against Iran, President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, but signaled that he would press for more time for a campaign of economic sanctions to work on Tehran.
Appearing with Netanyahu in the Oval Office before their meeting, Obama declared that “the United States will always have Israel’s back.’’ He reiterated that the United States would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he added, “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.’’
Netanyahu, sitting next to the president, declared that “Israel must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.’’
He thanked Obama for affirming, in a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group on Sunday, that, as Netanyahu put it, “Israel has the sovereign right to make its own decisions.’’ Israeli officials interpreted this to mean that the United States would not try to block a preemptive Israeli strike.
In Washington, the Senate Republican leader said Monday that the United States should use overwhelming military force against Iran if American intelligence shows that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon or it has started to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama’s repeated pronouncement that the administration keeps “all options on the table’’ is a talking point, not a policy, and the United States needs a straightforward, deliberate plan that would force Tehran to negotiate to preserve its survival.
McConnell was making the case for his proposal in a speech to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night, shortly before Netanyahu was to address the gathering. Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders Tuesday.
“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,’’ McConnell said, according to an advance text of the speech obtained by the Associated Press.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and National Intelligence Director James Clapper told Congress last month that Tehran has not made a decision on whether to proceed with development of an atomic bomb amid growing fears of its disputed nuclear weapons program and the possibility of an Israeli attack that could lead to a Mideast conflagration.
McConnell said the authorization for US military action against Iran would make clear that if Iran or its proxies retaliate against the United States or its interests, they would face an overwhelming response.
The Kentucky lawmaker called Iran a “self-described revolutionary state that is determined to shift the balance of power in the Middle East.’’ He cited its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its backing for the Syrian regime, the attempt last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
“In the weeks and months ahead, Israel and the United States face a day of reckoning,’’ McConnell said. “We either do what it takes to preserve the balance of power within the broader Middle East or risk a nuclear arms race across the region that’s almost certain to upend it.’’
Iran has denied Western accusations that it wants nuclear weapons or is seeking the ability to make them. And while many Western leaders suspect that Iran is secretly working to achieve that ability through its uranium enrichment activities, US intelligence analysts say they continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.
While Obama and Netanyahu struck a tableau of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, the differences in their approach to Iran were on display.
Netanyahu said nothing about diplomacy and the economic sanctions that Obama promoted. And while the president repeated his vow that “all options are on the table’’ to halt Iran’s pursuit of a weapon, he did not explicitly mention military force, as he did on Sunday.
Obama said once again that the United States rejected a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, saying that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would follow, raising the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and that an Iran with nuclear weapons would be able to behave with impunity in the region.
Netanyahu sought to eliminate any daylight between the United States and Israel on Iran, noting that Iran’s leaders vilify the United States as the “Great Satan’’ and Israel as the “Little Satan.’’
“We are you, and you are us,’’ he said. “We are together.’’
Israeli officials have been comforted in recent days by Obama’s explicit rejection of a containment policy, as well as his affirmation that Israel has the right to act on its own to defend its national security. But the president has not embraced another key Israeli demand: that military action be taken before Iran acquires the ability to manufacture a bomb, as opposed to before it actually builds one.
Still, officials said, Obama is likely to discuss in greater detail with Netanyahu the “red lines’’ that the United States has established on Iran, even as he tries to persuade Netanyahu to give diplomacy and pressure more time.