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Israeli Ambassador Weighs In On Netanyahu Visit


Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House. The number one topic on their agenda was Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Obama appealed to the Israeli leader to allow more time to pass for sanctions against Tehran to work rather than resort to military action soon. But Netanyahu insisted that his country remain master of its own fate. And here to talk with us about what all this means is Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Good to see you again.

MICHAEL OREN: Always good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: The president says the U.S. has Israel's back, while Prime Minister Netanyahu reserves the right to strike preemptively. Does Israel accept that for several months the world can wait to see if Iran is responsive to sanctions?

OREN: Well, we think that there is time, but there's not a lot. Keep in mind we have been warning about this Iranian nuclear program for close to two decades now. We appreciate President Obama's great commitment. But keep in mind Israel also lives in a very tough neighborhood.

SIEGEL: Does Israel acknowledge, though, that the current round of sanctions, not all of which have taken effect yet, are indeed tougher than what has been applied to Tehran in the past?

OREN: Definitely tougher. And we've seen that they have had an impact on the Iranian economy. What they have not impacted yet is the Iranian nuclear program.

SIEGEL: But Israel says that after a strike against Iran, if there is such a strike, there should be a regime of tough sanctions applied against Iran to prevent them from restarting. This was, I believe, Prime Minister Netanyahu's statement. There obviously is an acceptance by Israel in that case of the logic of sanctions.

OREN: The main goal will always be to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to make nuclear weapons. This is a regime that is sponsoring terror worldwide. It's actually the largest state sponsor of terror, giving, you know, tens of thousands of rockets to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. It's supporting terror in Africa, in South America. This is all they're doing without a nuclear weapon. Imagine what they would do with a nuclear weapon.

SIEGEL: But today, are Israel and the United States essentially in agreement about how to treat the Iranian nuclear program, or would you describe Israel's view of it as being in some way qualitatively different from that of the U.S.?

OREN: It's qualitatively different only in the sense that we are right next to Iran. We're a much smaller country. We're less than 1 percent the size of the United States. And the Iranian regime is openly saying it wants these weapons to wipe Israel off the map.

SIEGEL: Well, what do you make of Iran never conceding that it's making a nuclear weapon?

OREN: Well, Iran has systematically lied about its nuclear program for three decades now. They've said that they weren't enriching uranium to 20 percent; they're enriching uranium to 20 percent. There's lie after lie after lie here. The way we see that this could be resolved peacefully is that if Iran would give up its nuclear-enriched stockpile of uranium, it would cease enriching, and it would dismantle that secret facility at Qom. I think that's the way we could be assured that Iran is no longer threatening to wipe Israel, as they say, off the map.

SIEGEL: The prime minister said that for Iran, the U.S. is the great Satan; Israel is the little Satan. For them, he said, we are you, and you are us. And he said on that point, they're right. We are you, and you are us. We're together. That togetherness would also apply to Iranian reprisals for a strike, that is if the U.S. struck at Iran, the Iranian terror counterstrikes could be at Israel or vice versa. In that case, wouldn't an Israeli preemptive strike be something that the U.S. should be on board with and approve of if we're going into the risk together?

OREN: Let's understand that Iran has already killed hundreds, if not thousands of Americans, whether it be the 241 Marines killed in Beirut or the American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by Iran. But rather than focusing on the price of what happens if there's any type of action against Iran, let's pause for a second and consider what will be the price of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon.

SIEGEL: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States. Why shouldn't the U.S. be informed of any Israeli plan to strike at Tehran given the fact that, as the prime minister says, you are us and we are you?

OREN: We have very close relationships with the Obama administration, as with the previous administrations. This is a historic alliance between the American and Israeli peoples. And, of course, America's interests are part of our calculus in anything we do. At the end of the day, though, Israel must have responsibility for itself.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Michael Oren of Israel, thank you very much for talking with us.

OREN: As always, thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.