netanyahu obama - GPO - May 20 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, May 20, 2011. Photo by GPO
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The Israeli people understand that the United States isn’t bluffing when it says "all options are on the table" in regards to actions against Iran's nuclear program, U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview on Friday.

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Obama's comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Canada on Friday, ahead of a North American visit that will also take him to a much-anticipated meeting with Obama at the White House.

Speaking to The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg at the White House, Obama referred to reports of Israeli demands that U.S. officials explicitly indicate the possibility of an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

On the oft-repeated refrain "all options are on the table," and the contention that it represents a vague remark," Obama said "I think the Israeli people understand it, I think the American people understand it, and I think the Iranians understand it."

"It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran's military program; and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that," Obama said.

The U.S. president then added that he thought "the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff," adding, however, that he didn'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," Obama said, describing the reasons the Iranian threat was an important issue to his administration.

"In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government -- if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation," the U.S. president said, adding that the "risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound."

"It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks because they are less fearful of retaliation," he added.

When asked by The Atlantic whether or not the Iranian nuclear program represented an issue advanced mainly by Israel and was not a genuine threat to the U.S., Obama said he felt Iran's nuclear ambitions were a global problem, adding that "when we travel around the world and make presentations about this issue, that's not how we frame it."

"We frame it as: this is something in the national-security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community," Obama added, saying that he was confident that "Europe would not have gone forward with sanctions on Iranian oil imports -- which are very difficult for them to carry out because they get a lot of oil from Iran -- had it not been for their understanding that it is in the world's interest, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."

However, the U.S. president did reiterate the effectiveness of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on Iran's regime, saying that he pointed out to the Israeli leadership that "we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated, that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt."

"These are difficult questions, and again, if I were the prime minister of Israel, I'd be wrestling with them. As president of the United States, I wrestle with them as well," he added.

Obama also answered questions concerning his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that he thought it is absolutely true is that the prime minister and I come out of different political traditions."

"This is one of the few times in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations where you have a government from the right in Israel at the same time you have a center-left government in the United States, and so I think what happens then is that a lot of political interpretations of our relationship get projected onto this," he added.

But, he added, the "one thing that I have found in working with prime minister Netanyahu is that we can be very frank with each other, very blunt with each other, very honest with each other."

"For the most part, when we have differences, they are tactical and not strategic. Our objectives are a secure United States, a secure Israel, peace, the capacity for our kids to grow up in safety and security and not have to worry about bombs going off, and being able to promote business and economic growth and commerce. We have a common vision about where we want to go," the U.S. president added.

Finally, Obama warned of the possible ramifications of Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons, saying that if it did so, "I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, 'We are going to start a program and we will have nuclear weapons.'"

"And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold," he added.