President Obama speaks at the Department of the Interior on Friday. (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington -- President Obama informally opens his conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a high-profile venue Sunday morning, discussing U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear program before the American pro-Israel lobby as he prepares for a critical meeting with Netanyahu on Monday.
The speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will cover a range of issues concerning Israel, but the attention is tightly focused on Iran's drive toward developing nuclear weapons, the threat it presents to Israel and the international effort to head it off.
Obama has signaled in recent days that he wants to stay the current course of putting pressure on Iran with sanctions and holding military action against rogue nuclear facilities as a possibility rather than an explicit threat.
He delivers his remarks Sunday morning as influential American advocates push for greater assurance from the administration that the United States will not allow Tehran to develop the bomb or even obtain the capability to do so.
Obama and his surrogates have sought to head off concerns with public signals in recent days, including the president's own statements that he will not settle for a policy of "containment" in which the world tolerates a nuclear Iran.
The U.S. threat to use military force in such a situation should be taken seriously, Obama said in an interview published two days ago.
"As president of the United States, I don't bluff," Obama said in the interview with Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, a Middle East expert. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."
As he lays out his policy, the president must contend with complicated domestic political dynamics. Polling shows high anxiety about Iran as a potential threat to the United States and a solid majority of Americans say the United States should prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, even if it means military action.
Still, there is little consensus on whether the United States should follow Israel into a conflict over the issue. A Pew Research survey from mid-February showed 51% of Americans said the United States should remain neutral if Israel attacked Iran's nuclear facilities.
There is a clear partisan divide on that issue – one that has already spilled into the presidential race. Obama has been cast by GOP candidates as offering weak support to Israel, meanwhile strong elements of his party show a war wariness and reluctance to promise backing to Israel. The Pew survey found half of Democrats thought the United States should take military action to prevent a nuclear Iran; just one-third said the United States should support an Israeli strike.
As the president campaigned this week, the issue's rising profile was clear. Addressing a group of young, Democratic donors, a woman interrupted Obama's discussion of his foreign policy chops to shout: "Use your leadership! No war in Iran!"
"Nobody has announced a war, young lady" Obama replied. "You're jumping the gun a little bit there."