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Obama says tough choices needed in Mideast talks

WASHINGTON — President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to the White House on Monday to discuss a litany of familiar problems and confront a new one: the Ukraine crisis, which threatens US policies throughout the Middle East.

The West’s standoff with Russia over Crimea, analysts and former administration officials said, could complicate US efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, resolve Syria’s civil war and, in the short run, broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Russia is a pivotal player on Syria, an influential member of the negotiating group with Iran, and a symbol of resistance to the West throughout the region. A long dispute with Moscow, analysts said, would inevitably spill over into these other issues, transforming Russia from a truculent partner into a potentially disruptive force.

“The Russians will look for ways to show us the consequences of pressuring or trying to isolate them,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former adviser to Obama on the Middle East. “But they will also have to consider where that may or may not make sense for their own interests.”

The most obvious target is Syria, analysts said, where President Vladimir Putin of Russia would be even less likely to abandon his client, President Bashar Assad. Putin, most of the analysts agreed, would probably follow through on the agreement with the United States to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, if only to preserve Russia’s national prestige.

But the Russians would most likely drop any pretense of negotiating a political settlement. Fears of that possibility resonated throughout Syria and its growing diaspora Monday, with opponents of the government questioning whether any future Russian-American cooperation on Syria would fall victim to the clash in Crimea.

For Netanyahu, the biggest threat involves Iran, which has embarked on negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with the United States, Russia, and other major powers. While the Russian government shares American qualms about a nuclear-capable Iran, the analysts said, a failure of diplomacy would almost certainly block US attempts in the United Nations to punish Iran with new sanctions.

“Russia could play a critical role in helping us convince Iran to accept the tight constraints on its nuclear program necessary to produce an acceptable nuclear deal,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department Iran negotiator who is now at the Brookings Institution. “A confrontation over Ukraine could make such cooperation on Iran more difficult.”

Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group, said that without a nuclear deal, “the Crimean invasion makes it more likely that Russia would lead an effort to let Iran out of the penalty box.”

At the Oval Office meeting, Netanyahu acknowledged that Obama was probably distracted by events outside the region.

But Netanyahu reaffirmed the primacy of Iran as a threat to Israel and insisted that Iran be denied the ability to produce a weapon. “That goal,” he said, “can be achieved if Iran is prevented from enriching uranium and dismantles fully its military nuclear installations.”

Netanyahu thanked Secretary of State John Kerry for his “tireless efforts” to push a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. But he sounded a pessimistic tone, condemning “just incessant Palestinian incitement against Israel.”

Obama noted that the “time frame that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near, and some tough decisions are going to have to be made.”

But his tone was mild, and he praised Netanyahu for taking the talks seriously.

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