Why Netanyahu’s Visit to Discuss Iran Puts Obama in a Political Minefield

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Madel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama Sept. 21, 2011 at the United Nations Building in New York City.

President Barack Obama’s reelection bid could face a stern test when he addresses the annual conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, and then meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the following day. Top of the agenda on both occasions is Iran, which has also been chosen by Republicans as the Number 1 foreign policy issue of the presidential race. And publicly aired differences in the assessment of, and strategies for dealing with, Iran’s nuclear program have become a source of friction between the Administration and the Israelis. Netanyahu’s leverage in the debate is boosted not only by Israel’s threat to take unilateral military action if it deems Washington’s efforts to restrain Iran insufficient, but also by Obama’s need to remain onside with the flagship Israel lobbying organization — which tends to take its cue from the Israel Prime Minister, who also generated far more bipartisan enthusiasm on Capitol Hill when he spoke there last year than Obama ever has. While the President maintains the support of a solid majority of Jewish voters despite repeated domestic criticism of his handling of Israel, he may need AIPAC’s seal of approval to maintain the backing of some deep-pocketed donors for whom Israel’s concerns are a top priority. That, and the relentless charge by Republican presidential hopefuls that Obama is soft on Iran and jeopardizing Israel’s security, has made Israel’s Prime Minister an improbable player in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

But the President can’t focus only on electoral concerns as he urgently seeks to cool the climate of hysteria that could plunge Israel, Iran and possibly the U.S. into a potentially disastrous shooting war. That’s a tough balancing act, not least because the remaining Republican presidential hopefuls (minus the skeptic Ron Paul) will also address AIPAC where, if the primary debates are any indication, Gingrich, Santorum and Romney will seek to outdo one another’s hyperbole in portraying Obama as Neville Chamberlain and themselves as a better Winston Churchill than the other two in the face of a reincarnated Nazi menace.

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So jittery are some of the President’s supporters that the Democratic National Committee took the unusual step this week of issuing a “prebuttal” of the expected GOP attacks on Obama at AIPAC, in the form of a video that accuses Republicans of reducing Israel’s security to a partisan food fight, and reprises clips of Netanyahu praising Obama’s support–through word and deed–for Israel’s security. Of course, using Netanyahu as the arbiter of Obama’s fealty to Israel also effectively gives the Israeli prime minister the last word, which could pose problems next week.

A report in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Tuesday warned that Netanyahu planned to press Obama to take a harder U.S. line — and even to declare the “red lines” that would trigger a U.S. military response if crossed by Iran. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made clear that the Administration has no plan to harden its position on Iran right now. “Our policy remains exactly what it was,” Carney told reporters on Tuesday. “We are committed, as Israel is, to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” adding that there was still time for the combination of sanctions and diplomacy to prevent that outcome.

One problem with that formulation, of course, is that Israel is not just committed to “preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon”; it wants to prevent Tehran from having the capability to build one. “The United States and Israel clearly differ in where their red lines lie,” writes David Makovksy of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The United States has put the focus on Iran actually gaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel — more vulnerable to Iranian missiles due to its geographic proximity — views the threshold as the Iranian regime’s acquisition of enough low-enriched uranium to build a bomb, pending a political decision to convert it to weapons-grade fuel.”

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While U.S. and Israeli intelligence concur that Iran had not taken a decision to build a nuclear weapon, Tehran has already mustered the capability to do so, with Israeli intelligence concluding that the Islamic Republic has already stockpiled sufficient low-enriched uranium that, if reprocessed into bomb-grade materiel, could provide four atomic bombs. But that material remains under scrutiny by IAEA inspectors, who have certified that none is being diverted for any weapons program. Still, if “capability” rather than “weaponization” is the red line, it has arguably already been crossed and in this schema Iran would have to be walked back to avoid a military response.

Walking Iran back from its present capability may be exactly what Israel and U.S. hawks are demanding, but right now that remains an unlikely outcome of the strategies presently being pursued by Washington. A non-binding “Sense of the Senate” resolution unveiled Wednesday by Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman on behalf of a bipartisan group of 32 senators is explicitly designed to limit the Administration’s scope for compromise in any negotiating process, and to press for a more bellicose policy. The senators insist Obama draw the red line at Iran acquiring “nuclear weapons capability” rather than initiating the construction of weapons, and it “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”

AIPAC delegates are expected on Tuesday to fan out across Capitol Hill to press their senators and representatives to back the resolution.

Twelve of those Senators had earlier written to Obama warning him against allowing any relaxation of sanctions in response to any Iranian concession “less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence-building measures is over.”

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But some form of confidence building agreement is generally acknowledged as the only game in town as regards a plausible diplomatic starting point. The 12 senators’ end-point, also, essentially precludes any diplomatic outcome short of Iranian capitulation. Their letter demands that  Obama “make clear that, given the current Iranian regime’s pattern of deceptive and illicit conduct, it cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future.” That may accord with Israel’s position, but because enrichment for peaceful purpose is a basic right of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories, most of the international community accepts that once Iran has satisfied IAEA concerns and confidence in the safeguards against weaponization is restored, Tehran would have the same rights as any other NPT signatory. Sure, that would give it the capability to produce nuclear weapons, but any state that maintains the full fuel-cycle nuclear energy program permitted by Treaty — think Japan, or Brazil — has that capability. The NPT’s safeguards are designed to provide guarantees and early-warning mechanisms  against any move towards weaponization.

The Obama Administration, backed by the assessments of the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, takes a less apocalyptic view of Iran’s current nuclear efforts, and — like much of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment – believes that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities at this stage would do more harm than good.

While the more alarmist perspective is a far easier sell at AIPAC, in the GOP primaries, and even among many Democratic Party legislators, there are, also, restraints on how far Netanyahu will go to pressure Obama. Given the vastly superior U.S. military capability, Israel’s priority is to prompt the U.S. to take the lead in snuffing out any Iranian threat. Talk of unilateral strikes has long been recognized as a tactic of pressuring reluctant Western powers to do more, rather than a preferred option for the Israelis — who are also aware of widespread reluctance among the American public get dragged into another open-ended military conflict in the Middle East. And Netanyahu can’t afford to burn bridges with a President he may well have to work with after November. (The economy is far more likely than Iran to be the  issue that settles the election.) Still, Israeli media reports suggest that the Israeli leader will warn that even the toughest sanctions ever imposed on Iran are not going to change Tehran’s mind any time soon, and he will continue to demand even tougher measures.

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On that front, of course, the Administration typically responds to calls for greater belligerence against Iran by saying the sanctions it has put in place are putting a painful squeeze on the regime, and will get the job done — often citing Iran’s call for new talks as evidence that Tehran is beginning to crack. That may be a misreading: While Iran is feeling pressure and may be seeking a diplomatic compromise, it’s showing no inclination to simply yield to the demands of the Western powers. Realistic diplomacy to resolve the standoff would likely require that Tehran isn’t the only party making concessions.

A noteworthy warning to the Administration came Wednesday in a New York Times op ed by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk — himself a former AIPAC staffer with unimpeachable pro-Israel credentials — who wrote that the Obama policy of coercive diplomacy and “crippling sanctions” creates a vicious cycle more likely to prompt Iran’s leaders to build nuclear weapons to ensure their regime’s survival than it is to prompt capitulation. Indyk argues that Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei believes the goal of the U.S. and its allies is regime change — as the Republican presidential hopefuls insist it should be — which prompts nuclear defiance that, in turn, prompts Israeli anxiety and threats to bomb Iran. The Obama Administration then feels compelled to tighten the economic stranglehold in order to restrain the Israelis — but that only reinforces Iran’s sense of a mortal threat to its regime, which makes it more likely to seek a nuclear deterrent. Indyk concludes:

“The only way out of the vicious circle is for Khamenei to understand that Obama is not seeking his overthrow — that behind the negotiating door lies a path to Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power and not a corridor to the gallows. But how, while pursuing sanctions designed to cut Iran’s economic jugular, can Obama credibly signal this to Khamenei without opening himself up to the charge of weakness? Any hint of reassurance to the Iranian regime will surely be seized upon by his Republican rivals as a sign of appeasement.

Sadly, the dynamics of the current situation appear to make conflict inevitable. We are now engaged in a three-way game of chicken in which for Khamenei, Netanyahu and even Obama, physical or political survival makes blinking more dangerous than confrontation.”

Thus the stakes in the coming days as Obama and Netanyahu plan the choreography of their complicated and competitive dance through the minefield of their respective AIPAC appearances and their all-important White House meeting.

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