U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012.  (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

Significant Middle East Developments

Israel. President Obama held three hours of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday.

The two focused almost entirely on the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear development efforts.

President Obama also met with visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres on the margins of the annual AIPAC convention.

All three officials addressed some fourteen thousand AIPAC attendees.

Both Obama and Netanyahu focused their public remarks on Iran; the prime minister stressed the danger posed by Iran’s efforts to aquire nuclear weapons, and President Obama emphasized the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.

The visit generated intense media interest and considerable speculation on whether or not Netanyahu and Obama reached agreement on a way forward or on a timeline for action vis-à-vis Iran.

Israeli media speculation after the visit diverged widely, with some seasoned commentators arguing that Netanyahu received sufficient U.S. assurances to forestall a unilateral Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Other Israeli analysts argued that Netanyahu’s AIPAC remarks, likening the Iranian threat to that posed to the Jewish people by Auschwitz, solidified Israel’s path towards military action.

Iran. The United States and the other five global powers dealing with Iran’s nuclear program (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) agreed on Tuesday to resume face-to-face negotiations with Iran.

The place and time for the P5+1 talks are still to be determined.

The six powers issued a joint statement at the IAEA board meeting today calling on Iran to enter negotiations with no pre-conditions and to open the Parchin military base to inspectors.

Iran’s ambassador to France Ali Ahani said that discussion could not address reducing or eliminating Iran’s uranium enrichment activities.

On Wednesday, French foreign minister Alain Juppe said that “I think Iran continues to be two-faced… That’s why I think we have to continue to be extremely firm on sanctions, which in my view are the best way to prevent a military option that would have unforeseeable consequences.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, advising against immediate U.S. military involvement in Syria saying “What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now.”

Panetta went on to say “I’ve got to make very sure we know what the mission is … achieving that mission at what price” though he did “not rule out any future course of action.”

Army General Martin Dempsey underscored Panetta’s cautioning of military intervention earlier in the week, saying that a long-term air campaign would be a greater challenge in Syria than had been the case in Libya.

Syrian air defenses are five times more sophisticated than Libya’s, Dempsey said.

He also identified Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpile as one hundred times larger than Libya’s.

The ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, responded to Panetta’s testimony by suggesting that Syria’s 7,500 dead called for stronger U.S. leadership along the lines of former president Bill Clinton’s involvement in the Bosnian war in the 1990s saying:

“In past situations, America has led. We’re not leading, Mr. Secretary.”

Meanwhile, Kofi Annan, the recently appointed Arab League and UN special envoy for Syria, echoed Panetta’s sentiments today, also warning against military intervention.

Talking to reporters at the Arab League in Cairo on the first leg of his inaugural trip as special envoy, Annan said that he hoped “no one is thinking seriously of using force in the situation” and went on to say that the solution to the crisis “lies in a political settlement” and must be “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.”

He also hinted that military intervention had worsened other regional conflicts, though he failed to identify these by name.

Annan is scheduled to arrive in Damascus to begin negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this weekend.

Earlier this week, I argued on CNN.org that Annan should travel to Moscow and seek to engage the Russians in forging an end to the bloodshed in Syria.

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