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Obama's mesage to Israel and Iran: 'I don't bluff'

President Obama meets with Israel's prime minister Monday and will warn Israel not to unilaterally attack Iran. He also told the Atlantic magazine it was "unacceptable" for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

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At the same time, Obama has consistently refused to renounce a military option for the United States down the road. The dispute with Israel is over the timing and efficiency of such a strike, not whether one is ever appropriate. The difference of opinion has quickly come to dominate the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the U.S. strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran is a major issue for American Jewish voters in this election year.

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Israeli leaders have strongly hinted that they want to hear clearer terms from Obama for what the United States would do if Iran crosses the threshold from nuclear energy to nuclear weapons. Until now, Obama has said a nuclear Iran is unacceptable but has not spelled out just what the U.S. would do or when.

In the interview, Obama did go further than he has before. He explicitly referred to the possible use of military force, and he firmly rejected the notion that the United States might settle for a strategy of deterring Iran from using a nuclear weapon.

"You're talking about the most volatile region in the world," he said. "It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe. "

He also pointed to economic turmoil in Iran and reiterated that sanctions against the Iranian regime are starting to bite.

In a series of recent meetings with Israeli leaders, administration officials are believed to have sought to persuade the Jewish state to give sanctions more time to work and to hold off on any military strike. Speaking Thursday to reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama believes there is still "time and space" for those measure to persuade the Iranian regime to take a different course.

Israeli officials acknowledge the pain in Iran but have publicly expressed doubt those measures will ever cause Iran's clerical leaders to change course.

Obama wasn't so sure. "They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing," he told the Atlantic. "They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them."

Though Obama emphatically portrays himself as one of Israel's best friends, touting military and other ties, his relationship with Netanyahu has at times been frosty. The two have sparred publicly over Jewish settlements on the West Bank, with Netanyahu pushing back on Washington's efforts to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Iran issue has risen to the forefront of his foreign policy. At a fundraiser in New York on Thursday night, an audience member shouted out, urging the president to avoid a war with Iran.

"Nobody has announced a war," Obama cautioned. "You're jumping the gun a little bit."

IN PICTURES: Iran's military might

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