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U.S. looking to toughen Iran sanctions, hold back Israeli attack

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughs as she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during an offsite bilateral meeting as part of the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 27, 2012. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughs as she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during an offsite bilateral meeting as part of the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 27, 2012. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90.

Western moves to pressure Iran have been made more urgent by Netanyahu’s stern call for a “clear red line” against the Islamic state’s nuclear drive, diplomats said.

Officials said the United States and European Union were set to toughen nuclear sanctions aimed at punishing Iran while seeking to hold Israel back from a military strike, the French news agency AFP reported Sunday.

One senior official close to the sanctions talks said the U.S. was looking for “new areas” where sanctions could be applied or toughened. The U.S. administration “wants to pursue diplomacy, so we are nervous of any suggestion of any attack,” the official said.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu reiterated his view that drawing the red line for Iran would actually lessen the likelihood of a military confrontation with the Islamic republic.

“But if the Iranians breach that line, Israel, the U.S. and all other parties will have full legitimacy to act to stop their progress,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters. “I have always stood firm when it comes to Israel’s right to defend itself precisely when it chooses. This right is self-evident and everyone knows that.”

Netanyahu associates said his speech at the United Nations Sept. 27 rippled throughout the world and put Iran’s behavior front and center. They predicted the international community would now focus on how to check Iran’s nuclear program.

“I tried to say something yesterday that I think reverberates now around the world, and that is to translate the agreement and principle of stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons to practice,” Netanyahu said after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at UN headquarters in New York.

On Sept. 28, Netanyahu spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama by phone. Shortly afterward, the White House released a statement saying the conversation was “part of their regular consultations, and to follow up on Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton’s meeting with the prime minister.”

“The two leaders discussed a range of security issues, and the president reaffirmed his and our country’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security,” read the official statement posted on the White House’s website. “The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The prime minister welcomed President Obama’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly to do what we must to achieve that goal. The two leaders took note of the close cooperation and coordination between the governments of the United States and Israel regarding the threat posed by Iran—its nuclear program, proliferation, and support for terrorism—and agreed to continue their regular consultations on this issue going forward.”

Over the weekend, Netanyahu said his “long conversation” with Obama and his Sept. 28 meeting with Clinton were part of “our efforts to translate our shared goal into practical terms.” In addition to Harper and Clinton, Netanyahu also met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Netanyahu also spoke by phone with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who later told the U.S. media that he did “not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action.”

“I certainly hope we don’t have to,” Romney said. “I can’t take that option off the table—it must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said Sunday that Netanyahu’s address might help change the stated policy of the Obama administration, which had rejected Netanyahu’s request to draw a clear red line for Iran over its nuclear program. Speaking with Israel Radio, Steinitz described Netanyahu’s speech as “masterful” and said it could prompt an American change of heart in a few months’ time.

“Netanyahu’s in-your-face speech forced the international community to rethink the way it views this issue by using a new paradigm. The world has come out of its hibernation,” Steinitz said.

Israeli Ambassador the U.S., Michael Oren told Israel Radio on Sunday that Netanyahu’s speech not only highlighted the fact that the U.S. and Israel were on the same page over the threat posed by Iran’s possible nuclearization, but also induced “a real dialogue over how to confront this issue and achieve that goal [of denying Iran a nuclear weapon] through increased cooperation.”

The bomb diagram that Netanyahu presented to the General Assembly triggered a torrent of satirical spoofs online. But Netanyahu has reportedly been encouraged by the scope of exposure his unusual speech has generated and has deflected criticism that he resorted to shallow gimmickry.

“I tried to convert our core convictions and goals into practical terms,” Netanyahu said over the weekend. Later, he said: “Hundreds of millions of people saw the diagram and now they understand what they might not have previously comprehended, namely, what it means to stop Iran and at what stage on its march towards nuclearization this must be done.”

“I don’t call it a gimmick,” he said. “I call it a good way to drive home your message, and that message got through quite well. You always have a tough job on your hands, an intellectual challenge: how to take a topic and simplify it.”

Romney also joked about Netanyahu’s bomb diagram, telling the U.S. media shortly after his phone conversation with the Israeli leader that he had “complimented him on his address,” but had suggested that his graphic was “not up to the usual Boston Consulting Group standards” (referring to the company both worked for several decades ago).

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