US, Israel play down differences over Iran

As the presidential election approaches, the US and Israel are playing down any differences regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities, although defining any 'red line' remains elusive. In the Strait of Hormuz, the US is leading a major naval exercise aimed at Iran.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York in September 2011. The White House denies that Mr. Obama refused a request from Mr. Netanyahu to meet at the UN this week, citing conflicts in the leaders' schedules.

As the presidential election approaches, senior US and Israeli officials are playing down any differences between the countries regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations, says there’s “no daylight” between the two countries, emphasizing that the Obama administration "will do what it takes" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he won’t be drawn into the US election. “I will say that we value, we cherish, the bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, and we're supported by Democrats and Republicans alike,” he says.

Ambassador Rice and Mr. Netanyahu were speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday at a time when relations between Netanyahu and President Obama have been strained over Israel’s call for a “red line” regarding Iran, beyond which military action directed at Iran’s nuclear facilities would become inevitable.

Although Netanyahu professes neutrality when it comes to US domestic politics, it is well known that he has a close and warm relationship with GOP challenger Mitt Romney. They met as corporate advisers together in Boston in the 1970s, and they have been friends ever since.

Last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California chided the Israeli prime minister for his reported criticism of Mr. Obama.

“Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?” Senator Boxer wrote to Netanyahu. “Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history, including for the Iron Dome Missile Defense System?”

“As other Israelis have said, it appears that you have injected politics into one of the most profound security challenges of our time – Iran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Boxer wrote, noting that she is “one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress.”
 
But now Netanyahu plays down any differences he may have with Obama, asserting on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that Mr. Romney's accusation about Obama having “thrown Israel under the bus,” as Romney once put it, is "simply not the case and simply not my position."

The Israeli prime minister also brushed aside reports that Obama had refused to meet with him during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week.

"I'm always pleased and happy to have a conversation with President Obama," said Netanyahu. "We've had our discussions; our schedules on this visit didn't work out … but we continue to be in close consultations."

Romney has been critical of what he says is Obama’s insufficient toughness on Iran. But in fact, their positions on any red line are virtually the same – at least rhetorically.

"My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney told ABC News this week. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world. Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America."

Similarly, Obama told Telemundo this week that he had "stated repeatedly, publicly, that … we're not going to accept Iran having a nuclear weapon." 

The key question here is: At what point does Iran’s nuclear capability become “unacceptable?” It’s unclear from Romney’s and Obama’s comments, but much clearer from Netanyahu’s.

“In six months or so, they will be 90 percent of the way there,” Netanyahu said Sunday. “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran, and I think that actually reduces the chance of a military conflict because, if they know there’s a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they face consequences, I think they’ll actually not cross it.”

As the diplomatic maneuvering over Iran – and its domestic political component – continued through the weekend, the US military was very much involved in the region.

The US is leading some two dozen countries in a major naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz.

The war games are the largest ever undertaken in the region, the British newspaper The Telegraph reports.

The 11-day exercise, which includes three US aircraft carrier groups, battleships, ballistic missile cruisers and destroyers, as well as US Marines and Special Forces units, will focus on how to prevent or breach an Iranian blockade of the strait that might come in response to any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran has thousands of mines, which it is capable of deploying by aircraft, surface ships, and small submarines.

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