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U.S. won't sacrifice Israel ties to engage Iran

  • Article by: Anne Gearan and Craig Whitlock
  • Washington Post
  • October 3, 2013 - 5:59 PM

 

– Rapprochement with Iran won’t come at the expense of Israel’s security or its relationship with the United States, top Obama administration officials said Thursday, but they added that it would be “diplomatic malpractice” not to explore whether Iran’s nuclear program can be defused peacefully.

The forceful defense of engagement made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry while in Japan was the first high-level U.S. answer to a blistering rebuke delivered Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader warned that the West is being fooled by the new, friendlier face of Iranian leadership that is being offered by President Hassan Rowhani.

“I did not interpret Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments as suggesting that we are being played somehow for suckers,” Kerry said. “I understood it to be a warning: Don’t be played.”

Iran does not recognize Israel and in the past has said the Jewish state must be destroyed. Israel sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, and Netanyahu told the United Nations that Israel would act alone to prevent a bomb if no other nations were willing to do so. That was a direct challenge to the Obama administration, which has pledged to take military action against Iran if diplomatic efforts fail. Nothing about the new diplomatic effort with Iran changes that bottom line, Kerry and Hagel said.

Kerry praised Rowhani for bucking hard-liners at home to reach out and propose substantive new talks. Iran’s new willingness to talk led President Obama to call Rowhani as the Iranian leader left the United Nations meeting in New York last week — the first such direct contact between a U.S. leader and an Iranian one since before the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Hagel said he understands Israel’s concern over the turnabout, but added, “I have never believed that foreign policy is a zero-sum game.” “Engagement is not appeasement, it’s not surrender,” he said. “Aren’t we wiser if we can find ways to resolve disputes, recognizing the danger, being very clear-eyed and keeping the strongest military in the world?”

Kerry said that Iran’s assurances — that it seeks only peaceful nuclear energy — will be put to the test at the negotiating table. He said, “I can assure the prime minister, as I would assure all the people of the world, and particularly Iranians, there is nothing here that is going to be taken at face value.”

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