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Obama Says U.S. Will Stand With Israel Against Iran

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, amid ongoing tensions over what to do about Iran's suspect nuclear program.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama is walking a fine line on the issue of Iran. He spent much of today with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he offered reassures to Israel that the U.S. would use military force if necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. At the same time, President Obama tried to tamp down what he calls loose talk of war. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Netanyahu used his White House photo-op last year to lecture President Obama in front of TV cameras about the still-stalled peace process with the Palestinians. This time, he kept focused on one issue only, Iran, which he says is a common enemy of Israel and the U.S.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: You know, for them, you are the great Satan. We are the little Satan. For them, we are you, and you are us. And you know something, Mr. President, at least on this last point, I think they're right. We are you, and you are us. We're together.

KELEMEN: President Obama told the visiting Israeli prime minister the same thing he told the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security.

KELEMEN: President Obama is reassuring Netanyahu that the U.S. shares Israel's concerns and is determined to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. As President Obama puts it, the U.S. doesn't have a containment policy but a policy of prevention.

OBAMA: We do not want to see a nuclear arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world. We do not want the possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists, and we do not want a regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism being able to feel that it can act even more aggressively or with impunity as a consequence of its nuclear power.

KELEMEN: Those fears are being overplayed, argues a former U.S. intelligence official, Paul Pillar, who now teaches at Georgetown University. He says there's a long history of overstating the pace of Iran's nuclear program and lots of fanciful speculation about what would happen if it did get the bomb. Pillar says he believes that Iran could be contained, though he argues it would be harder after a U.S. or an Israeli strike.

DR. PAUL PILLAR: From a strictly strategic point of view of what U.S. interests would entail, containment of a nuclear-armed Iran should not be taken off the table, but the politics dictated that the president should say something else before AIPAC and to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

KELEMEN: Pillar sees politics at play in much of the tough talk in Washington these days. He doesn't think the bellicose language will help the Obama administration in its diplomacy on this issue. Pillar says if the U.S. wants to see how sanctions and diplomacy play out, it needs to convince Israel to give it time.

PILLAR: There is no question that a major priority today of the Obama administration is to try to hold off the Israelis from launching their own strike.

KELEMEN: Though that may be the case in private, President Obama told AIPAC yesterday that Iran should have no doubt about U.S. resolve or about Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions. Prime Minister Netanyahu echoed that at the White House today.

NETANYAHU: Israel must reserve the right to defend itself. And after all, that's the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that's why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.

KELEMEN: He and President Obama watched each other carefully, listening to every word as they appeared before the cameras. President Obama said the U.S. and Israel are consulting closely and will continue to do so in what he expects will be a difficult few months ahead. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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