President Bush, responding to concerns Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought to the White House, called on Monday for worldwide isolation of Iran until it “gives up its nuclear ambitions.”
The risk to the world extends beyond Israel and the Middle East, Bush said in Oval Office remarks to reporters after meeting with Olmert for an hour. The United States and Israel say they believe Iran is working on nuclear weapons, although Tehran says its work on the technology is aimed only at producing energy.
“Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not in the world’s interest,” Bush said. “If Iran had nuclear weapons it would be terribly destabilizing.”
His prescription for dealing with Iran was diplomatic, having the United Nations impose sanctions to force Iran to stop uranium enrichment. Diplomats at the U.N. have been bogged down for weeks trying to agree to a resolution that would place some sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its enrichment.
“If they continue to move forward with the program, there has to be a consequence,” Bush said, referring to “economic sanctions” as a possibility. “And a good place to start is working together to isolate the country. And my hope is, is that there are rational people inside the government that recognize isolation is not in their country’s interest.”
Bush said if the Iranians want to have a dialogue, “We have shown them a way forward,” referring to the U.S.-European demand that Iran halt enrichment.
Olmert said his government in principle was willing to negotiate with Syria. But Syria’s sponsorship of Hamas, the militant group that has attacked Israel and dominates the Palestinian government, and its activities in Lebanon, prevent talking to Damascus right now, Olmert said.
Bush, also not ruling out U.S. talks with Syria, said Syria has to “get out of Lebanon.”
Bush’s comments come as some critics are calling for Washington to open dialogue with Iran over how to calm the situation in neighboring Iraq.
Olmert shared Bush's concerns, saying ahead of the talks that “this is not an issue of Israel only. This is a moral issue of the whole world.”
The meeting was the second Olmert had with Bush since the prime minister took over for the ailing Ariel Sharon. Palestinian gestures toward peacemaking with Israel was also a key topic on their agenda.
Tehran’s goal is to “ultimately wipe Israel off the map,” Olmert said on NBC’s “Today” show. “The whole world has to join forces in order to stop it. This is a problem of every country. I know that President Bush is fully aware of that.”
Olmert also arrived with expectations that he could make small-scale moves on the Palestinian front, including the possibility of offering humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.
On Sunday, the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, of the ruling Hamas group, accepted an Arab proposal for a peace conference with Israel, diplomats said. The endorsement marks the first time Hamas, which refuses to renounce violence against the Jewish state, has indicated it would consider making amends with Israel.
The White House reacted positively to what it called “some activity on the Hamas side.”
“Both sides are working on it, and we are encouraged,” spokesman Tony Snow said.
He told reporters that when it comes to peacemaking, however, “nobody ever said it was simple, without bumps.”
Olmert had dinner Sunday evening with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli government or the U.S. State Department on the meeting.
Israel is worried by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls to destroy Israel and — like the United States — does not believe Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is intended solely to produce energy. Israel accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Olmert said in the NBC interview that he had no objection to the U.S. negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue to achieve a peaceful compromise. “Every compromise that will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear capability which would be acceptable to President Bush will be acceptable to me. I’m not looking for wars. I’m not looking for confrontations. I’m looking for the outcome.”
While the U.S. has led international efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program, Israelis are worried American policy might soften following the Democratic Party’s victory in U.S. congressional elections last week.
The fear is that with American public opinion turning against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush, a Republican, would be less likely to take decisive military or diplomatic action against Iran.
Olmert on Sunday repeated his view that Iran will not scale back its nuclear ambitions unless it fears the consequences of its intransigence, a spokeswoman said.
“They (the Iranians) have to be afraid of the consequences if there isn’t a compromise,” spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Olmert told journalists on the flight to Washington.
Olmert appeared, however, to play down a senior Israeli official’s suggestion that Israel is preparing for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
Asked to comment on Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh’s remarks, Olmert replied that on such matters, “we have to be very careful about what we say,” Eisin said. Sneh said last week that he considered a pre-emptive strike a last resort, but added that “even the last resort is sometimes the only resort.”
On Sunday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Iran’s military would hit back with a “swift, strong and crushing” response to any Israeli military action against it.