Obama and Netanyahu Clash Over Iran At Four-Hour White House Meeting

In the past couple of weeks, U.S.—Iranian relations appear to have thawed slightly, with the two nations’ heads of states speaking directly for the first time in over thirty years last Friday. But in a four-hour meeting with President Obama earlier today, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that wants none such reconciliation and, in doing so, highlighted how the issue of Iran has acted as a small but perceptible wedge between the two allies.

Broadly speaking, Obama and Netanyahu agree on a few basic points: Iran can’t be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon, and if President Hassan Rouhani wants the West to ease sanctions against his country, he must back up his recent conciliatory words with actions. But on basic questions regarding Iran’s intent and the level of its good-faith, Israel and the United States now diverge.

While Obama is at least nominally optimistic that the new Iranian president’s moves towards moderation are genuine and could lead to a breakthrough in negotiations, Netanyahu is looking upon the situation with a much more skeptical eye, and has implied that Rouhani’s recent charm offensive is inauthentic.

"We have to test diplomacy," Obama said Monday. "We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions.”

Compare that with Netanyahu’s insistence yesterday that, when meeting with Obama, he would “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and Iran's offensive of smiles.”

Today’s meeting also highlighted another point of contention between Obama and Netanyahu: the question of what Iran is actually attempting to accomplish with its nuclear program. Tehran has repeatedly insisted that the program is only aimed at providing power for the country, while critics assume the country is actively trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Obama usually withholds judgement on this question. He speaks in generalities, preaching the need, as he did at the United Nations summit last week, to “resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program” and “prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” While these words are unequivocal in intent, they don’t necessarily imply that Iran is actually trying to build a nuke.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems convinced that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons and, by extension, that it’s being duplicitous in its negotiations with the West.

“Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said today. “For Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program.”

Perhaps as an olive branch to Netanyahu, Obama reiterated that “we take no options off the table, including military options,” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.