WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President George W. Bush will on Wednesday discuss ways of stepping up efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program before Bush's term in office ends in the coming year. The meeting will be held the day after the Annapolis summit.
"This will be the most important meeting" of the prime minister's visit to the United States, said a senior Olmert aide, accompanying him to Annapolis.
In addition to the Iranian nuclear question, the two leaders will discuss other regional issues, including renewing peace talks between Jerusalem and Damascus and bilateral issues between Israel and the U.S.
The prime minister is concerned by what in Israel appears to be a drop in the U.S.'s determination to take action against Iran; Olmert fears Bush will conclude his term in office and leave the handling of Iran's nuclear program to his successor. Several months ago, Olmert said he was confident Bush would undertake a final effort in his last year in office, either by military means or intensified sanctions, to stop Iran's nuclear program. However, there are growing voices in the American leadership calling for dialogue with Iran, and senior officials in the administration have reservations about targeting Iran's nuclear installations militarily.
As an expression of his concern, Olmert hardened his line on Iran's nuclear program. He was quoted by Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea last weekend as saying "it is possible to deal with the Iranian problem by military means, and it is possible to bear the cost that such an operation entails." Olmert's bureau refused to comment on the statement, but also did not deny it. In discussions behind closed doors, Olmert was quoted as saying that "Iran will not have a nuclear bomb."
Minister for Strategic Threats Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview with Ma'ariv over the weekend that Israel was on the verge of having to make fateful decisions in the coming year, hinting that he was referring to Iran.
Israeli officials said in closed meetings that it would be best if the United States attacked Iran - and not Israel alone.
This is also the tone set in statements by Olmert and other Israeli politicians, who maintain that "Iran is an international, not an Israeli problem."
Israel's official stance, which Olmert reiterates in every public address on Iran's nuclear program, is that there is still time for effective and painful sanctions that will pressure the Iranian public to demand that its rulers alter their plans.
Israeli officials speak of preventing the inflow of refined fuel products and of imposing a naval blockade on Iran.
Aides accompanying Olmert to the U.S. say the U.S. is primarily focused on financial restrictions. They said this effort was bearing fruit.
The U.S. is also taking advantage of the French stance on Iran, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a forceful position on Tehran.
Olmert's aides said it would be difficult for Bush to rally international support for a military move against Iran, unless he could convincingly show that sanctions were unable to effectively affect Iran's leadership.
The international community now awaits deliberations at the United Nations Security Council, scheduled to take place next month, on expanding the sanctions on Iran. Security Council members will be discussing the two reports on Iran's nuclear program. The first is a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear program and the degree to which Tehran has complied with international inspection teams. So far, Israel and the U.S. have regarded the IAEA's stance on Iran as "soft." The second report is by a team appointed by the Security Council to evaluate the question in all its aspects.
If at least one of the two reports on Iran's nuclear program is negative, Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, promised the United States that they would support additional sanctions against Tehran.
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