WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said for the first time that he does not view "containment" as an option if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, warning Iran's leaders to take seriously the U.S. threat to use military force.
The comments in a magazine interview released Friday were part an effort to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. "has Israel's back," and there is no need to rush toward airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Obama is scheduled to meet Netanyahu on Monday.
Obama's language also seemed intended to quiet worries among Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill about Washington's willingness to use force if necessary. His carefully worded statement, referring to force as an "option," stopped short of saying that an attack would be automatic if Iran decides to build a bomb, as some hawks on the issue have urged. But by publicly ruling out containment - a strategy of tolerating a nuclear-armed Iran but aiming to restrain its actions - it left few nonmilitary options if diplomacy fails.
"As president of the United States, I don't bluff," Obama said in the interview with Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, a Middle East expert. "I also don'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."
"Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn't just in the interest of Israel - it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States," Obama said. "When I say we're not taking any option off the table, we mean it."
A containment strategy would not work because of the danger of nuclear arms spreading throughout the region, Obama said. That would threaten not only the security of Israel, but also that of the United States and Europe.
"If Iran gets a nuclear weapon ... 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,' " Obama said. "And, at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound."
Relationship with Israel
Israeli officials have hinted repeatedly that Netanyahu might order his air force to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities this year. The goal would be to set back Iran's uranium enrichment program before it can be moved to underground quarters out of the range of Israeli bombers, what Israeli officials call a "zone of immunity."
White House officials are trying to persuade Netanyahu that no such immunity zone exists because the U.S., which has a much larger and more powerful air force, could attack Iran if diplomatic efforts to stop the nuclear program fail.
In the interview, Obama hinted that he had won over Israel's defense minister, saying that "I think that Ehud Barak understands" his position. "I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, hopefully when he sees me next week, will understand it." The statement echoed suggestions in the Israeli press that Barak has been receptive to U.S. appeals for restraint.
Netanyahu warned on Friday against falling into a trap of new nuclear talks with Iran. Netanyahu said Iran could use negotiations to stall tougher international action, while continuing to work on its nuclear program.
Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes only; the U.S. and many of its allies suspect Iran is trying to master the components of a nuclear weapon.