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Can Obama-Netanyahu rift over Iran be put on hold for the election?

Netanyahu, a day after saying the US had no 'moral right' to stop an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, sought to defuse the spat with Obama. But it's destined to linger through the election and potentially for long after.

By Staff writer / September 12, 2012

President Barack Obama (r.) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York in September 2011. Israel and The White House seek to defuse tension between the two leaders.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File



Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appeared Wednesday to try to dial down the very public discord between himself and President Obama on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, saying that sometimes even “the best of friends” disagree.

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But the modest olive branch is unlikely to close the gap between the two leaders over when and how to threaten Iran with military action to stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It’s a gap with what may be America’s most politically sensitive ally that will dog Mr. Obama through the presidential campaign – and will color the two leaders’ relations should Obama win reelection.

Obama and Mr. Netanyahu spoke by phone for an hour Tuesday night, hours after the Israeli premier said the US has no “moral right” to stop Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear sites if the US is unwilling to set clear “red lines” of its own for Iran. Netanyahu has been pressing the US both privately and publicly to set such “red lines,” which, once crossed by Iran, would trigger US military action.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently reported that Iran has stockpiled enough low-and medium-grade uranium to provide – if further purified to highly enriched uranium – enough fuel for up to six nuclear weapons.

But it is not so much the IAEA findings, which come as no surprise to Netanyahu, as the approaching US election that has spurred the Israeli leader to ramp up pressure on Obama to commit to action on Iran, some Israel experts say. Netanyahu believes Israel’s leverage with the US is highest now, with Obama in a tight race with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while he sees that leverage decreasing once the election is over, they say.

The issue of “red lines” encapsulates the friction between the two governments over how to address Iran’s advancing nuclear program, which a number of Western countries believe is aimed at delivering a nuclear weapon, but which the Iranian government says is intended for purely peaceful purposes.

The Obama administration believes it has more time – at least a year – to try to pressure Iran into verifiably limiting its uranium enrichment program before it could cross a nuclear point of no return. The Israeli government says the current dual approach of toughened economic sanctions and big-power diplomacy is not working, and that only the setting of clear “red lines” by the US on specifics – like how much stockpiled enriched uranium would trigger a US military attack – will cause the Iranians to take notice and modify their behavior.


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