Can U.S. and Israel Agree on Rules for Iran Talks?

U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in their first meeting since Israel's election in March, told reporters in Washington they agreed on most issues, including the need to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians and, notably, the need to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. "We don't see closely on this, we see exactly eye to eye on this," Netanyahu said in a joint news conference with Obama at the White House.

But even before the summit, officials on both sides say, differences had emerged regarding the approach to talks with Iran—specifically whether those talks should begin with a clear deadline. The Israelis are asking how much time President Obama will allot for negotiations before acknowledging that Iran cannot be talked out of its nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu is said to be worried that Iran will drag out talks over many months while continuing to enrich uranium and racing ahead with its nuclear program. Two Israelis familiar with the thinking in Jerusalem say Netanyahu believes a progress assessment should be conducted within three months of the start of any talks, with an eye toward tightening sanctions if Iran has not clearly indicated a willingness to compromise.

Washington's view is more nuanced. A senior administration official says Obama is aware Iran might try to drag out the talks, but he also believes setting deadlines could mar efforts to remake America's relationship with Tehran after 30 years of tension. "We don't have a lot of time to let these things develop. By the same token, he [Obama] is not just going to pose an artificial timeline," the senior official told NEWSWEEK, preferring not to named because Iran was now an especially sensitive topic. Obama, speaking at the news conference with Netanyahu, said: "We will probably be engaged and have an assessment [of the prospect of a deal with Iran] by the end of the year."

The U.S. official said [the desire for clear and rapid progress must be balanced against] the need for negotiations to be conducted with the real decision maker in Iran—a reference to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini. "We want to make sure that we have fruitful discussions with the authorities that are going to make the decisions on this, not have dilatory talks with those who can't necessarily deliver what we agree." Iran has yet to respond to Obama's invitation for talks.

The timeline dilemma isn't just a concern in U.S.-Israeli relations, either. It is similarly spelled out in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report issued earlier this month. Titled Iran: Where We Are Today, the report states that some U.S. government officials favor strict deadlines while others believe they would amount to a "recipe for failure." Those arguing against a timetable said it would "take time for the United States to assure Iran that it cannot afford the price of acquiring a nuclear arsenal and that Washington recognizes Tehran as an influential regional player," according to the report.

As if to underscore the tenuous and problematic nature of the talks, the Israeli Embassy in Washington was evacuated at the same time that Netanyahu and Obama were meeting—the result of a bomb scare.