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White House / ANALYSIS

Obama, Netanyahu, and Iran: The Trust Question

Can the president persuade the Israeli prime minister that he really does have Israel’s back?

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Jeff Goldberg in the Oval Office, Feb. 29, 2012.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

photo of Michael Hirsh
March 2, 2012

This is clearly the sort of issue Barack Obama gets paid the big bucks for.

In a presidential election year in which his record as commander-in-chief is being called into question, and war with Iran is a real possibility, Obama must play the hawk publicly while acting far more like a dove privately. The president must restrain the increasingly bellicose Israelis by making it clear he will strike Iran himself if necessary, thus also neutralizing his GOP opponents’ chief charge of weakness against him. At the same time, Obama must try to prevent what he considers a premature Israeli attack — one the president knows could be disastrous both for his reelection and his strategy in the region.

Getting this strategy exactly right will be the test of success or failure when Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has testy relations, at the White House on Monday. In an interview with The Atlantic published on Friday, Obama went farther than he has before in suggesting that he would use force to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb, saying that U.S. strategy “includes a military component.”

 

Obama said: “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But 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 added, in another clear message to Netanyahu, “We’ve got Israel’s back.” For the Israelis, this is the crucial question that could determine war or peace in the months ahead. Iran’s new enrichment facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom, is buried so deep underground that if Tehran succeeds in transferring many more centrifuges to it than the several hundred already there, future attacks by Israel from the air may not be enough to take it out. The time frame for Fordow is debated, but experts say it could become “operational” as early as this year. The Israeli calculation, therefore, is that they must strike before then, Israeli officials have suggested.

The United States, by contrast, probably has the capacity to seriously damage Fordow at any point in the future, some military experts say. The Washington Post reported this week that massive new “bunker buster” bombs recently added to the U.S. arsenal — which Israel does not have — could “cause irreparable damage to infrastructure as well as highly sensitive nuclear equipment, probably setting back Iran’s program by years.”

So the question becomes whether Netanyahu and his government trust Obama enough to let their own final deadline for action pass; whether they are willing, in effect, to delegate the Iran military option to a U.S. president who is still widely mistrusted in Israel. “Across the political spectrum in Israel, whether deserved or not, there are question marks as to whether the president can be counted on for this,” says Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.

That will also be the paramount question when Obama and Netanyahu meet. (Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, told National Journal on Friday that he could not comment on the Obama interview.) And here Obama’s policies over the last three years have not served him well. Early in his administration, the president stunned Israel and its supporters in the American Jewish community by attempting to strong-arm the Israelis into halting settlements on the West Bank. Then, last year, Obama sought to blunt a Palestinian effort to win a U.N. General Assembly vote unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state by declaring, in a speech, that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Even though such a position has been privately adopted in peace negotiations going back to Camp David, Netanyahu was furious and alarmed by Obama’s decision to offer it up unilaterally while getting nothing in return.

In recent months, senior U.S. officials (including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey) have also signaled that there is a growing gap between the U.S. and Israeli timetables on Iran. Despite that, the two nations remain closely aligned on a strategy of diplomatic pressure and sanctions, especially since Obama dropped an early policy of an “outstretched hand” toward Iran and began pushing for tougher measures. The U.S. has also quietly supported Israel’s covert war against Iran — though it has looked the other way at the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists — and permitted unprecedented military cooperation.

In his Atlantic interview, Obama sought to clarify why, to the United States, “it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” The president said: “In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government — if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear-arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.”

Even so, U.S. officials are insisting on more time to let sanctions work — at least until after the U.S. election in November. They fear not only that a war could roil the region, jack up oil prices even further, and cost Obama reelection, but that a premature and only partially successful Israeli attack might even accelerate an Iranian bomb.

“When we came in, Iran was united and on the move, and the world was divided about how to address this issue,” Obama said. “Today, the world is as united as we've ever seen it around the need for Iran to take a different path on its nuclear program.”

But if Israel attacks and only manages to set back the Iranian program slightly, U.S. experts fear, the international coalition against Iran could disintegrate and Tehran could resume its nuclear efforts in a much more sympathetic environment. 

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