Will Bibi and Barack Agree on Iran?

Despite a troubled history, Obama and Netanyahu make nice at White House talks

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Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 30, 2013

The first time Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Iran, they did so in a janitorial office at Reagan National Airport. It was 2007, and candidate Obama was returning to Washington from a campaign trip to Iowa. Netanyahu, who was then the head of the opposition in Israel and whose aides had trumpeted Obama’s potential, wanted to size him up.

Most of the hastily arranged conversation focused on how to handle the threat of a nuclear Iran, and Netanyahu came away positively impressed, says one Israeli official who was present. “I can work with this man,” the aide recalls Netanyahu saying.

Six years later, the two leaders are still working on agreeing how to handle Iran. Aides to both men say Iran was the primary subject of their White House meeting today, but instead of agreeing on approaches, the men are in danger of diverging. And the consequences of disagreement could be dangerous for both countries.

After four years of efforts to slow Iran’s program through diplomatic outreach, economic pressure and covert action, Obama committed in the heat of the 2012 election to go to war with Iran if it managed to get a nuclear weapon. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election this summer, and his push to make progress on the nuclear issue, have restarted the diplomatic track.

That worries Netanyahu, who suspects Iran may be buying time for its nuclear program to advance to an unstoppable level. If U.S.-Iran talks are going nowhere and Iran’s nuclear program goes too far, Netanyahu has threatened to order an attack against Iranian facilities.

The discussions today were tinged by a history of difficult exchanges between Netanyahu and Obama. For all the supposed bonhomie of their first encounter at the airport, they have clashed on details and symbolism. And the two men are very different. As liberal Israeli politician Avram Burg told me for a 2010 profile of the relationship of the two men, “You cannot stitch together the world visions of Obama and Netanyahu,” he says. “This is a clash of the psychological infrastructure.”

But the two men managed to put on a good face when they came out of their meeting at the White House. Obama committed, again, to keeping the military option on the table. “As president of the United States, I’ve said before, and I will repeat that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America.”

And Netanyahu seemed to endorse Obama’s approach to talks. “I want to express my appreciation to you for the enormous work that’s been done to have a sanctions regime in place to thwart Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. I believe that it’s the combination of a credible military threat and the pressure of those sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table,” Netanyahu said.

What’s not clear is whether, after six years of trying, Obama and Netanyahu have finally found agreement on Iran, or just on the importance of pretending they have. Then again given their history, even pretense would be progress.