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Obama hardens his position on Iran

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Amid escalating speculation that Israel was on the cusp of launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, President Barack Obama of the United States and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel met in Washington, D.C., on March 5 to discuss that contentious issue

With Israel having declared its implacable opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran, the debate over Iran’s capabilities and intentions has grown exponentially.

Indeed, Iran’s quest for a nuclear arsenal has supplanted the Arab-Israeli conflict as the overriding problem facing the two allies and has become a test of Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States.

And in a year when Obama is seeking a second term in the White House and his Republican rivals are falsely accusing him of being soft on the Iranian regime, Iran has pushed aside all other issues in Israel’s dialogue with the United States.

Netanyahu, who has described Iran as an existential threat, arrived in Washington after talks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa.

In a preview of his message to Obama, Netanyahu demanded that Iran must abide by certain conditions before renewed international talks on its nuclear program get under way. Saying that Iran’s leadership is cynically playing for time to deceive the world, Netanyahu insisted that negotiations should resume only after Iran ends its nuclear activities. Netanyahu called on Iran to stop the enrichment of uranium, dispose of its current stock of enriched uranium and dismantle an underground facility in Qom.

Rejecting Netanyahu’s ultimatum, Obama said that Iran would never agree to it. The following day, the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain announced they had accepted Iran’s offer to launch a fresh round of discussions. These negotiations are expected to begin in April.

Prior to this announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “serious concerns” about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s atomic program and disclosed that Iran has tripled its production of higher-grade enriched uranium.

Of added concern to Israel was the news that in last week’s Iranian parliamentary elections, the majority of seats were won by candidates loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran’s hardline supreme leader, who has branded Israel a malignant ”cancer” that must be excised from the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama – the ninth and arguably the most important one in three years – occurred after a series of high-level Israeli-U.S. consultations on Iran took place.

To ascertain how the Obama administration might react to an Israeli strike, Israel sent three senior officials to Washington: Tamir Pardo, the director of the Mossad; Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and Moshe Yaalon,  the vice-premier.

Obama dispatched three envoys to Jerusalem: Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Upon returning home, Panetta was reported to have said that an Israeli attack would most likely occur this coming spring. Dempsey, meanwhile, warned that a strike would “not be prudent at this point” and could destabilize the region. These comments were obviously designed to discourage Israel from taking action.

Donilon kept his opinions to himself. But shortly after his visit, the New York Times published an intriguing op-ed piece by Israel’s former chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, on this highly charged topic.

Yadlin pointed out that Israel’s “military ingenuity” should not be underestimated, argued that a non-nuclear Iran was “the best guarantee” for long-term Mideast stability, and stated that Israel needed “iron-clad” assurances from the Obama administration to induce it to exercise restraint.

Yadlin’s article, which was probably part of an orchestrated Israeli plan to convince the United States to harden its policy on Iran, ran alongside a flurry of stories suggesting that time was running out on diplomacy, that Israel was seeking a clear answer from Washington concerning its “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program, and that Israel had ceased sharing its plans on Iran with the United States. Still other articles left the impression that the Obama administration was “buying time” and that Washington disagreed with Israel’s assessment that economic sanctions against Iran had been or would be ineffective.

With tension rising, Obama tried to cool passions by saying that Israel had not yet decided whether to act militarily, that he was not “bluffing” about attacking Iran if it built a nuclear weapon, and that he was committed to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge.

In a bid to stiffen Netanyahu’s resolve on the eve of his discussions with Obama, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel would act in its own best interests and would not be influenced by outside powers.

To no one’s surprise, Obama urged Netanyahu to give diplomacy a chance, requested restraint from Israel, spoke of the dire regional consequences of a strike on Iran and warned that “too much loose talk of war” only benefited Iran by driving up oil prices and creating a measure of sympathy for Iran in Muslim lands.

Yet, in a significant hardening of his position, Obama said, “My policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Obama also pleased Netanyahu by observing that Iran is as much an American issue as an Israeli one, and that Israel has the sovereign right to make its own decisions on national security.

Netanyahu, who has used Holocaust imagery to describe Israel’s bitter confrontation with Iran, laid down markers as well, saying that Israel “must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself,” and that Israel will always be “the master of its fate.”

Although Netanyahu claimed that neither diplomacy nor sanctions would nudge Iran to abandon its nuclear program, he acknowledged that he has not made a decision on striking Iran.

In the wake of Netanyahu’s visit, it remains to be seen what Obama’s response would be should Israel resort to force in the future.

Obama, who inherited unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is loath to make new military commitments in an era of economic uncertainty, is certainly not the first U.S. president who prefers diplomacy over war.

Obama’s hawkish predecessor, George W. Bush, one of the most pro-Israel presidents in history, rejected an Israeli request for refuelling aircraft and bunker-busting bombs to attack Iran.

To compensate Israel, Bush bolstered Israel’s ballistic missile defences and stationed an advanced radar station in the Negev Desert.

Like Bush, Obama has upgraded defence relations with Israel. Last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres noted that Israel and the United States have never had better security co-operation.

In telltale signs that Israel and the United States are co-ordinating their respective positions on Iran, Israel announced that its chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz, is due to visit Washington later this month for consultations, and Obama instructed Panetta to consider an Israeli request for upgraded bunker-piercing bombs.

This column will appear in the March 15 issue of The CJN

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