Obama to PM: Iran More Serious Than Before About Nuclear Diplomacy

White House sees collapse of Iran's economy as main reason for readiness for diplomacy, senior official tells Haaretz.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

In his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday presented the American assessment that Iran is more serious than before about finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, and is not just playing for time.

The White House surmises that the Iranian approach to negotiations with the West over its disputed nuclear program has changed for the good, a senior U.S. official involved in the meeting told Haaretz. The official asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, but said there are diplomatic opportunities that must be examined.

"In terms of quality, the messages coming from Iran are something we haven't seen in the past," the senior official said.

During the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Kerry received the impression that the Iranians were more committed than in the past to negotiations with the U.S. and world powers, said the senior official. The feeling in the Obama administration is that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has authorized Iranian President Hassan Rohani to negotiate directly with the U.S. on the nuclear issue.

"We didn't feel the Iranians were serious in the past, and now it is clear to us that they are serious about examining whether we can reach an agreement," said the official. "The Iranians are the ones who are now saying we cannot waste time. We don't think they are dragging it out," he added.

The White House believes the main reason for the change in the Iranian approach is the collapse of the country's economy, stemming from international sanctions. Rohani promised during the election campaign that he would have the economic sanctions against the country lifted and would rehabilitate the economy - and now he is trying to deliver the goods.

The new government in Iran understands the seriousness of the economic crisis better than the previous government, said the official. If within six months the economy does not start to recover, the honeymoon between the Iranian people and Rohani will come to an end, he added.

Obama left the meeting with Netanyahu on Monday feeling upbeat, said the official. "There was no conflict or significant disagreement during the meeting with Netanyahu on Iran," he said. "The Israelis are more skeptical, and that is understandable. If the Iranians would have talked about me the way they talk about Israel I also would be skeptical. But all in all, we have a good feeling about the coordination with Israel," said the official.

'We intend to test the diplomatic channel'

The atmosphere at the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was different than during their meeting in March 2012. Then, Netanyahu came to the White House, demanded that Obama publically set a "red line" for Iran's nuclear program, and even threatened that Israel would take unilateral military action against Iran.

When Obama came to Jerusalem a few months ago, there was already a growing closeness between him and Netanyahu on the issue of red lines, said the senior American official. This time, "there wasn't the same dynamic there was in March 2012."

"Netanyahu did not object to the holding of direct negotiations between the United States and Iran, during his talk with Obama, but asked in general that the Western powers not ease up the pressure on Iran before the regime in Tehran takes significant actions to halt its nuclear program," said the official. "The Israelis understand that we intend to test the diplomatic channel, but they are explaining to us they are interested in our taking as strict a line as possible," he added.

In meetings held in the past two weeks, including the one between Netanyahu and Obama, the Americans committed to regularly updating Israel on progress in the talks with Iran. "Israel is not part of the powers' talks with Iran, but we will keep them in the picture," the official said.

Obama made it clear to Netanyahu in the meeting that he has no intention of easing the sanctions on Iran before they adopt confidence-building measures related to their nuclear program. The United States will demand "transparent" steps that can be verified, and will ensure they are affecting the nuclear program, said the official. "The more significant the Iranian measures, the more likely the easing of the sanctions will be more significant," he added. "The more Iran takes irreversible steps to limit its nuclear program, then in return the United States and the other powers will make the easing of the sanctions more generous."

Obama set two red lines during his speech at the UN last week; if they are crossed that would obligate the U.S. to use military force, said the official. The first is the development of nuclear weapons by a nation in the Middle East and the second is a military threat on one of the U.S.' allies in the region. "The president's words at the UN should give Israel the understanding that when it is a matter of an American security interest, the president will be ready to use military force," said the official.

Obama has no intention of allowing Iran to reach the situation of North Korea, which ended recently with the country acquiring nuclear weapons under the cover of negotiations with the West, said the official. "The Iranian case is not like that of North Korea," he said. "The president does not believe that it is possible to have a policy of containment against Iran. A nuclear Iran is much more dangerous than North Korea and its implications for the Middle East will be much more serious," he said.

Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, September, 30, 2013.Credit: AP

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