Amid war talk, Obama calls for keeping pressure on Iran

(JTA) — President Obama called for keeping up international pressure on Iran amid news reports that Israel may be preparing for war with the Islamic Republic.

The president’s comments, made Thursday at a joint news conference in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, were delivered several days before the scheduled release of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program.

"We had the opportunity also to talk about a range of security issues," Obama said of his conversation with Sarkozy. "One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program."

Obama added that "President Sarkozy and I agreed on the need to maintain the unprecedented international pressure on Iran to meet its obligations."

The comments came as the Israel Defense Forces held a drill in central Israel simulating missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israeli defense officials said the drills were scheduled months ago.

The Home Front Command drill Thursday was a simulation of a rocket attack on a civilian area. The drill included opening evacuation centers and handing out gas masks.

The drill was held following several days of reports in the Israeli media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Israeli Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strenuously denied the reports in an interview Wednesday on Israel Radio. 

Also Wednesday, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile from the Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. It is widely believed that Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill that would intensify restrictions on Iran’s financial sector and on contacts with Iranian government officials. The bill approved Wednesday, with support from Republicans and Democrats, would extend sanctions to a number of Iranian financial institutions, including the country’s Central Bank.

The inclusion of the Central Bank, under an amendment authored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the committee’s chairwoman, and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), its ranking Democrat, would effectively cut off the U.S. economy from Iran or any entity dealing with it.

The bill also would re-enact existing sanctions on dealings with Iran’s energy sector.  

Additional approved amendments, authored by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), would accelerate the period required for companies to disengage from existing contracts, and would require naming companies allowed to do business with Iran under a presidential waiver. Another Ros-Lehtinen amendment approved by the committee would require 15 days notice to Congress of any U.S. government contact with an Iranian government representative — a provision that could complicate negotiations on nuclear issues or cooperation on drug trafficking and terrorism.

The committee also backed a separate bill that would tighten sanctions and penalties on individuals and entities contributing to suspected nuclear weapons programs in Syria, Iran and North Korea.

The bill advanced to the full House and must be reconciled with a Senate version, then signed by President Obama before it becomes law.

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