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Obama tells Iran, Israel: 'I don't bluff'

He sought to delay any faceoff over Tehran's nuclear efforts.

WASHINGTON - President Obama delivered his most explicit threat yet that the United States would attack Iran if that's what it takes to prevent the country from developing a nuclear bomb. At the same time, he warned Israelis they would only make a bad situation worse if they moved preemptively against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The double-barreled warning, in an interview published Friday, came before Obama's high-stakes meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and a speech Sunday to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. Obama said an Israeli strike would stir sympathy for the Islamic republic in a region where the Jewish state has few allies. But he made clearer than before that Iran could face attack from the United States.

"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," Obama told the Atlantic magazine. "I don't bluff."

He said Iran and Israel understood that "a military component" was among a mix of options for dealing with Iran, along with sanctions and diplomacy, making plain a threat to attack that had previously been more subtly implied.

The warning underscores how the threat that Iran could pose has eclipsed every other issue in the close but often contentious U.S. relationship with Israel, raising the political stakes for Obama. Iran's disputed nuclear ambitions dwarf the unfinished business of peace with the Palestinians and Obama's sometimes testy relationship with Netanyahu.

The White House dispute with Israel is about the risks versus the benefits of a military strike in the near term, not whether one is ever appropriate. The issue is infused with domestic politics in the United States and Israel, and Obama is at pains to show American Jewish voters he is not being harder on Israel than on Iran.

"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security I have kept," he said in the magazine interview. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"

He then suggested an election-year answer to his own question, accusing Republicans of trying to fan the doubts and slam a wedge "between Barack Obama and a Jewish American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy."

He firmly rejected the notion that the United States might settle for a strategy of letting the Iranians build a nuclear weapon but deterring them from using it.

"You're talking about the most volatile region in the world," he said. "It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe."

Israel has been publicly debating whether to launch air strikes on Iran's known nuclear facilities in the next several months, before Israel judges that Iran's program would be too far along to stop. The Obama administration argues that the time for a strike is further in the future, and that there is still time to persuade Iran's leaders to back down. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Israel wants U.S. backing for any military action against Iran, but has signaled it would act alone if it must. Israeli officials said they had made no decision yet, but the Obama-Netanyahu meeting comes amid a growing sense in Israel and Washington that a strike is likely.

Israeli officials appeared unmoved by the U.S. arguments, and Obama is unlikely to talk Netanyahu out of launching a strike if the Israeli leader decides not to wait. Both governments maneuvered Friday to set the terms for their discussion.

Netanyahu warned the world Friday not to fall into the "trap" of renewed nuclear talks. Speaking in Canada, he said he would not set down "red lines" for Israeli or U.S. action on Iran - a reference to reports in Israel that the country intended to press the United States to set such demands.

Until now, Obama has said a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, but he has not spelled out what the United States would do or when. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday that Obama did not intend to tip his hand to Iran about what lines it could not cross because doing so would not be in U.S. interests.

Three delegations of senior U.S. national-security officials made the case against an Israeli strike in visits to that country during the last month. They argued that launching a strike before the last possible moment, and without international support, would do more harm than good.