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Obama vows attack on Iran if needed

Pledge intended to assure Israel ahead of meeting

President Obama wants Israel to refrain from acting on its own in a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

WASHINGTON - President Obama, speaking days before a crucial meeting with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stiffened his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even as he warned Israel of the negative consequences of a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Obama, seeking to reassure a close US ally that contends it has reached a moment of reckoning with Iran, rejected suggestions that the United States was prepared to try to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. He declared explicitly that his administration would use force - a “military component,’’ as he put it - to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb.

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But the president also said he would try to convince Netanyahu, whom he is meeting here Monday at a time of heightened fears of a conflict, that a military strike could help Iran by allowing it to portray itself as a victim of aggression. And he said such military action would only delay, not prevent, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Obama’s remarks, in a 45-minute interview with The Atlantic magazine this week, were intended to reinforce a sense of solidarity between the United States and Israel without ceding ground on differences between Washington and Jerusalem over the timetable or triggers for potential military action.

“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff,’’ Obama said in the interview. “I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.’’

With nearly 14,000 people massing in Washington this weekend for a meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Obama was also trying to shape the narrative, anticipating days of speeches urging him to harden his policy. He will speak to the group tomorrow.

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Obama’s remarks built on his vow in the State of the Union address that the United States would “take no options off the table’’ in preventing Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, from acquiring a weapon. But he was more concrete in saying that those options include a “military component,’’ albeit after other steps, including diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions.

Administration officials have signaled that they are not open to a containment strategy toward Iran, but Obama had not clearly stated that view. Such a strategy, he said in the interview, would run “completely contrary’’ to his nuclear nonproliferation policies and raise a host of dangers the United States could do little to control.

The president spoke at length about how Iran’s acquisition of a weapon would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, offering a robust case for why the West could not contain Iran the way it did the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

There is a “profound’’ danger that an Iranian nuclear weapon could end up in the hands of a terrorist organization, Obama said. Other nations in the region would feel compelled to push for nuclear weapons to shield themselves from a nuclear Iran.

While the president noted that Israel understandably felt more vulnerable because of its geography and history, he said, “This is something in the national security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community.’’

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Israeli officials have said that they may feel compelled to strike Iran before its nuclear program becomes impregnable by sheltering a key uranium-enrichment facility in a mountainside, under hundreds of feet of granite.

Netanyahu, who was in Canada yesterday before arriving in the United States, warned that the West should not fall into the “trap’’ of further negotiations with Iran. He demanded that Iran dismantle the enrichment facility, near the holy city of Qom.

Obama, who made outreach to Iran a hallmark of his first year in office, said he still believed Iran’s leaders could make a rational calculation, under the pressure of harsh sanctions, to give up their nuclear ambitions.

“They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now,’’ he said in the interview. “It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.’’