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Obama pledges resolve against Iran’s nuclear aims

  • President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

    President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they participate in a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they participate in a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
  • President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they participate in a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Eager to reassure an anxious ally, President Obama yesterday promised to work closely with Israel and do whatever is necessary to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, “the world’s worst weapons.” He also pledged to investigate whether chemical weapons were used this week in neighboring Syria’s two-year-old civil war.

Obama, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his first visit to the Jewish state as president, said of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: “We prefer to resolve this diplomatically and there is still time to do so.” But he added that “all options are on the table” if diplomacy falls short.

“The question is, will Iranian leadership seize that opportunity,” he added. The president said Iran’s past behavior indicates that “we can’t even trust yet, much less verify.”

Netanyahu, at Obama’s side for a joint news conference, said that while he appreciated U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons through diplomacy and sanctions, those tools “must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.”

“I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “I appreciate that. I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel’s right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

The Israeli leader said that he and Obama agree that it would take Iran about a year to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Although preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a priority of both Israel and the United States, Netanyahu and Obama have differed on precisely how to achieve that.

Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb. The U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course, though Obama insists military action is an option.

Obama also took note of the difficult way forward in the broader quest for Mideast peace, acknowledging that in recent years “we haven’t gone forward, we haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see.”

The president said he came to the region principally to listen, and hoped to return home with a better understanding of the constraints and “how the U.S. can play a constructive role.”

“This is a really hard problem,” he declared.

Netanyahu, for his part, said he was willing to set aside preconditions in future talks with the Palestinians, adding that it was time to “turn a page in our relations.”

On another troubling issue in the region, Obama said the U.S. is investigating whether chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria, and he said he was “deeply skeptical” of contentions by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government that rebel forces were behind any such attack.

Both the Assad government and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack Tuesday.

Obama said the U.S. policy not to intervene militarily or arm Syrian rebels thus far is based on his desire to solve the problem with world partners.

“It’s a world problem when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children,” Obama said.

Obama’s visit to Israel, from the start, has been designed to send a message of reassurance to a key ally.

At an extravagant welcoming ceremony, Obama sounded a message that “peace must come to the Holy Land” and that such a goal could not be achieved at Israel’s expense. U.S. backing for Israel will be a constant as the Middle East roils with revolution and Iran continues work on its nuclear program, he said.

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