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White House Faces Continuing Questions on Iran, Possible Israeli Action

  • February 28, 2012
  • In the News

The White House says the United States and Israel share the same goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and emphasizes the importance of allowing enough time for international sanctions to change the Iranian government's behavior.  

Amid the flurry of media reports ahead of next week's talks between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two in particular were the subject of questions at Tuesday's White House news briefing.

An Associated Press report quoted what it called U.S. officials familiar with high level U.S.-Israel discussions as saying that Israel would not warn the United States if a decision is made to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. 

Press Secretary Jay Carney said he would not comment on discussions between U.S. and foreign officials, stressing the fact that Israel and the United States are fully engaged at every level.

When pressed again on the issue of prior notice of an Israeli attack on Iran, Carney said, "We have very close relationships with our Israeli counterparts.  We have deep engagement at every level.  But I wouldn't discuss speculative; I wouldn't answer speculative questions like that."

Whether Israel would provide advance notice has been among many questions in the intense media reporting ahead of next week's Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

Security studies specialist Colin Kahl of Georgetown University Colin Kahl, associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says Israel has been sending signals for months that an attack on Iran is being contemplated.

Kahl says that, in some sense, is a "strategic warning."  But he adds that the question remains whether Israel would give the United States actual notice prior to launching an attack. "The only person that knows the answer to that question is Netanyahu.  But I think there is a concern that the Israelis wouldn't want the United States to discourage them from taking action at the last minute and therefore they may only give the United States a few hours notice," he said. 

Top U.S. officials, including President Obama's national security adviser, have visited Israel in recent months to make the case that more time should be allowed for international sanctions against Iran to work.

Iran denies that its nuclear program has any military purpose, saying its uranium enrichment activities, which U.N. atomic inspectors say have reached unprecedented levels, are for peaceful civilian purposes.

Carney was asked about a report in The Wall Street Journal that says Mr. Obama is considering speaking in more specific terms about so-called "red lines" Iran should not cross.

The newspaper said this was linked to Israeli government complaints about public statements by some U.S. officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Martin Dempsey, that Israeli leaders felt sent the wrong signals to Iran.

Responding to the report, Carney repeated President Obama's pledge that no options have been taken off the table regarding Iran, but he said the United States believes there is "time and space" for diplomacy and sanctions to work. "There is a road out of, or a path out of this dead end that Iran has been pursuing, which is to honor its international obligations, forsake its nuclear weapons ambitions and rejoin the international community by living up to its obligations," he said. 

U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have identified red lines for Iran as being a decision to develop a nuclear weapon along with any attempt to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are scheduled to speak at the annual conference of the largest pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Carney said Mr. Obama will discuss the Iran issue in his address to the organization on Sunday, the day before he welcomes the Israeli leader to the White House, but he offered no details of what the president intends to say.