Obama warns against premature action on Iran


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama yesterday followed up Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s alarmist speech about “the shadow of annihilation” threatening Israel if Iran obtains nuclear weapons by again urging diplomacy and caution.

Earlier in the day, Leon Panetta became the first US defence secretary to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in 20 years.

Mr Obama and Mr Panetta both stressed that the US would not merely “contain” a nuclearised Islamic republic but would prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons.

Mr Panetta made the threat of US military intervention more forcefully, saying it was “a last alternative when all else fails, but make no mistake, we will act if we have to”.

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich criticised Mr Obama in speeches to Aipac.

“What’s said on the campaign trail . . . those folks don’t have a lot of responsibility. They’re not the commander-in-chief,” Mr Obama said in a rare press conference at the White House.

He said he had heard “a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk” by politicians, who then propose doing exactly what he has done.

“The one thing we have not done – we have not launched a war. If some of these folks think we should launch a war, they should say so.”

US Senator John McCain, Mr Obama’s rival in the presidential election four years ago, told the US Senate on Monday night that the US should attack Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

“The ultimate goal of air strikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organise and plan their political and military activities against Assad,” Mr McCain said.

Mr Obama said the Syrian leader had lost legitimacy and was behaving inexcusably towards his own people. “On the other hand, for us to take action unilaterally as some have suggested, or to suggest there is a simple solution, I think would be a mistake.”

Syria was “much more complicated” than Libya, where the US, Nato and the Arab League worked together to overthrow Muammar Gadafy.

“It is my belief that ultimately this dictator will fall,” Mr Obama said of Dr Assad. “But the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military – that hasn’t been true in the past, and it won’t be true now.”

Returning to the subject of Iran, Mr Obama noted that Tehran had just agreed to return to the negotiating table and said sanctions were starting to have an effect.

“It is deeply in everybody’s interest to see if this can be resolved in a peaceful fashion. This notion that we have a choice to make in the next week or two or month or several months is not borne out by facts.”

Premature action would have consequences. “Any time we consider military action, the American people understand there is going to be a price to pay,” Mr Obama cautioned. “Sometimes it’s necessary, but we don’t do it casually.”

Mr Obama admitted that “over the last three years when Iran has engaged in negotiations, there has been hemming and hawing and stalling and avoiding the issues in ways the international community has concluded were not serious”.

He did not expect an immediate breakthrough, but said it would quickly become apparent whether the Iranians were serious.

Mr Obama has been reproached for not visiting Israel. He pointed out that he visited Israel twice as a senator, and is not the first US president who has been unable to travel to Israel during his first term.

Nuclear programme Iranian offer of talks accepted

BRUSSELS – Six world powers have accepted an Iranian offer for talks on its disputed nuclear programme, the European Union’s foreign policy chief has said.

The announcement yesterday by Catherine Ashton came shortly after Russia called for a resumption of face-to-face dialogue as soon as possible, saying an Iranian letter last month showed it was now ready for serious negotiations.

Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to Ms Ashton in February saying Tehran wanted to reopen negotiations and offering to bring unspecified “new initiatives” to the table.

“Today . . . I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue,” said Ms Ashton, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran.

She said the date and venue for the talks would have to be agreed.

“Our overall goal remains a . . . negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Ms Ashton said in a letter to Dr Jalili.

Earlier, Iran said it would let UN nuclear inspectors visit a military site where they have been repeatedly refused access to check intelligence suggesting explosives tests relevant to atom bombs has been conducted there.

Diplomats, however, cited a proviso in the Iranian statement saying that access to the Parchin site still hinged on a broader deal on how to settle outstanding issues which the two sides have been unable to reach for five years.

An International Atomic Energy Agency report in November said that Iran had built a containment chamber at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, to conduct high-explosives tests that are “strong indicators” of an effort to design atomic bombs.

The agency requested access to Parchin during talks in Tehran in January and again in February, but the Iranian side refused.

– (Reuters)