The White House refused Monday to delineate what would constitute a “red line” for the Iranian nuclear program after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was in discussions with U.S. officials on setting one.
“The line is the president is committed to preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday, though he refused to be more specific. “We have eyes into the program, we are aware of developments, and we would know if there were a so-called breakout move by Iran toward the building of a nuclear weapon — and that has not happened.”
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that aired Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said a clear boundary could prevent the need for military action.
But President Obama and administration officials previously resisted laying down red lines for Iran and instead urged Israel to give diplomacy and a series of sanctions the U.S. and its allies have imposed time to work to rein in Iran’s nuclear work diplomatically.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently said there is no timetable limiting U.S. negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
“We’re not setting deadlines,” she said.
The Israeli media immediately pounced on the comments, suggesting that Mrs. Clinton was rejecting Mr. Netanyahu’s red-line demand.
While the tough-talking rhetoric from Israeli leaders has fueled speculation of an attack on Iran before the American presidential election, recent opinion polls show a majority of Israelis oppose a military strike without U.S. support.
The dispute has national security and political dimensions, and comes a week after Democrats scrambled to defend their commitment to Israel after dropping a reference to Jerusalem as the country’s rightful capital in the party platform.
Mr. Obama intervened and had the platform altered in a re-vote, though many delegates at the Democratic National Convention voted against the change, underscoring a deep split within the party.
A day and a half later, during his acceptance speech at the convention, Mr. Obama, who has had a strained relationship with Mr. Netanyahu at times, tried to put to rest doubts about his support for Israel and its prime minister.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” he said. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.”
Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said excluding the Jerusalem language was a major gaffe that underscored Mr. Obama’s mishandling of the relationship with a major ally.
Mr. Romney this weekend also criticized the president for initially saying that the administration would try to reach out to Iranian officials rather than pursue the sanctions, which he has since imposed in an effort to try to halt that country’s nuclear program.
Iran says the program is not designed to produce nuclear weapons, though intelligence analysts disagree.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Monday that Mr. Netanyahu told German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle that his red line would be if Iran begins enriching uranium above the 20 percent mark — the level of refinement needed to make uranium suitable for civilian energy uses.
Weapons-grade fuel typically requires enrichment to 90 percent fissile purity. But according to Haaretz, Mr. Netanyahu argued that Iran would need only six weeks to enrich from 20 percent to 90 percent.
Other analysts have said that Iran would need up to a year or more to produce weapons-grade material and fashion it into a nuclear warhead that could fit onto a missile.
Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly about Iran this month, just weeks before Election Day in the United States.
When asked whether Mr. Obama plans to meet with Mr. Netanyahu during the U.N. meeting, Mr. Carney said he didn’t have any scheduling announcements to make this far in advance.
Earlier this year, Mr. Obama sat down with Mr. Netanyahu at the White House in a show of solidarity aimed at reassuring Israelis that U.S. support for the country is undiminished.
Relations have been steadier so far this year. Mr. Obama did some fence-mending after a testy public exchange during a news conference in 2011 in which Mr. Netanyahu took issue with Mr. Obama’s calling for the creation of a Palestinian state based on boundaries that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
That conflict ended with Israel in control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.