Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned the U.S. not to be fooled by Iran’s recent openness toward negotiations with the West, but he also suggested for the first time that Israel could back a deal in which Iran proceeds with a nuclear program — as long as the program is not militarized.
“For Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program,” said Mr. Netanyahu, who appeared with President Obama at the White House and also held talks Monday with Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is expected to deliver a speech focused heavily on Iran at the United Nations on Tuesday, repeated the reference to Iran’s “military nuclear program” on multiple occasions Monday. The precise language signaled a subtle shift in the rhetoric from Mr. Netanyahu, who has been less specific during past speeches — often suggesting Israel could accept nothing less than a total shutdown of all nuclear activities in Iran.
That Mr. Netanyahu appeared suddenly to be bending toward such a concession Monday may be tied to attempts by Iranian leaders over the past week to make international headlines by drawing attention to the fact that Israel — unlike Iran — has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
New Iranian President Hasan Rouhani sought to amplify that last week during his push for a new era of diplomacy between Iran and the West. Claiming during a speech before the U.N. General Assembly that Iran supports the establishment of a “nuclear-free zone,” Mr. Rouhani pointed out that Israel remains the only nation in the Middle East that has not signed the treaty.
“Israel has 200 nuclear warheads” and “is the source of insecurity in our region,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” the first appearance on the show in nearly three decades by such a high-level Iranian official.
Mr. Obama appeared eager Monday to paper over any perception that the potential thaw with Iran might create difficulties for the tight U.S.-Israel alliance. He also set out to convince Mr. Netanyahu that the White House remains “clear-eyed” about the potential threat being posed to the world by Iran’s nuclear program.
“We have to test diplomacy,” Mr. Obama said. “We have to see if, in fact, they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions.”
Those remarks followed a whirlwind week of diplomatic flirtation between Washington and Tehran that was capped Friday by a personal telephone call from Mr. Obama to Mr. Rouhani. Mr. Obama’s recent and sudden pursuit of diplomacy with Tehran had appeared to rankle Mr. Netanyahu.
Heading into Monday’s meeting at the White House, the Israeli prime minister had told reporters that he was on a mission to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and onslaught of smiles.” He appeared to keep his word Monday, saying — with Mr. Obama at his side — that “Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction.”
The reason for Iran’s sudden openness for negotiation on the issue of its nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu said, is that the West has kept up “the combination of a credible military threat” coupled with by a harsh campaign of economic sanctions that have hurt the Iranian economy.
“If diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place,” he said.
Last year, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a theatrical speech to the U.N. General Assembly during which he used a red marker and large white placard with a bomb drawn on it to emphasize his fear that Iran was dangerously close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. But on Monday, as he stood beside Mr. Obama at the White House, the Israeli prime minister suggested the ultimate goalpost for what Israel can tolerate from Iran on the nuclear front may have softened.
“We have a saying in Hebrew, we call it ‘mivchan hatotza’a.’ You would say it in English, ‘What’s the bottom line?’” Mr. Netanyahu said. “And the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program.”
Foreign policy analysts said Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks could be read in a few ways.