Obama Offers Israel a Path to Avoid an Iran War, but Will Netanyahu Buy Its Terms?

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Pete Souza / White House / Getty Images

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while walking from the Oval Office to the South Lawn Drive of the White House, after their meeting May 20, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Their poor chemistry and well-documented differences notwithstanding, President Barack Obama may yet emerge as the friend Benjamin Netanyahu most needs right now — by offering the Israeli Prime Minister a path that would avoid a dangerous confrontation with Iran while strengthening Israel’s sense of security against any Iranian nuclear threat. What remains to be seen, in the course of Netanyahu’s Washington visit and beyond, is whether he’ll accept the terms on offer.

Asked in a lengthy interview with the Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg published Friday, March 2, to clarify the terms of his oft stated vow that “all options are on the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, Obama answered, “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.”

It has been widely reported that while in Washington, Netanyahu intends to press Obama to clarify the “red line” that, if crossed by Iran, would trigger the military response signified by the “all options” phrase. In the Goldberg interview, Obama appeared to draw that red line at Iran’s actually building a nuclear weapon. Not that he accepts all of Iran’s current nuclear activity and defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demands, but Obama sees “crippling sanctions” as sufficient to give Iran’s leaders pause on that score. But building a nuclear weapon — which Iran, by the consensus of U.S. and Israeli intelligence, has not yet decided to do — appears, from Obama’s statements, to be the red line.

Israeli officials had suggested in the media in the weeks ahead of the visit that unless Netanyahu is satisfied that the Obama Administration is willing to take military action should Iran’s nuclear work breach a red line, Israel would be obliged to take matters into its own hands. The Goldberg interview suggests that Obama is willing to do that — but also that his red line is not necessarily the same one that the Israelis have drawn up to now.

Obama warns that “it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” but that’s not the same as the Israelis’ insistence that it is unacceptable for Iran to have the capability to build such a weapon. That’s a distinction with a profound difference, because Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure arguably already gives it the capability to build a nuclear weapon, although the U.S. and Israel agree that it hasn’t taken a decision to do so.

Israel has long insisted that Iran can’t be trusted, for the foreseeable future, to maintain any uranium-enrichment capability on its own soil, given the nation’s history of deception and hostile posture. But the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) grants Iran, as a signatory, the right to enrich uranium. Tehran is currently under U.N. orders to suspend enrichment until it satisfies the IAEA’s concerns about transparency and about research and experimental work that, particularly before 2003, may have been weapons-related. But once it satisfies those concerns, Iran would have the right to enrich uranium under IAEA scrutiny, like any other NPT signatory. Any country with a peaceful full-fuel-cycle nuclear-energy program — think Japan, Brazil or Argentina — has the capability to produce nuclear weapons should it break out of the NPT. The point of the treaty is to strengthen safeguards against such a breakout. Previous negotiations with Iran focused on persuading it to adopt an Additional Protocol to the treaty that would strengthen the inspection regime. That option remains a key goal of diplomatic efforts to address the standoff, although it would not remove Iran’s capability to break out but instead would simply strengthen verifiable safeguards against it.

In this respect, a key passage from Obama’s interview is the following:

“Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya. That’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.”

Iran’s current enrichment efforts remain under scrutiny by the IAEA, whose inspectors certify that no material has been diverted for any possible covert military program. And any move to break out and build a weapon would be obvious, first and foremost, by the need to enrich uranium to anything above the levels required for Iran’s peaceful purposes — less than 4% for reactor fuel; 20% for the Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes. And on the latter, the stockpile would necessarily be limited — an issue that will be a focus in negotiations that look set to resume in the coming months. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to above 90%.

If breakout to weaponization is the red line, then the point is that Iran has not yet crossed it or even taken a decision to do so. Indeed, Obama noted that “what we’ve heard directly from them over the last couple of weeks is that nuclear weapons are sinful and un-Islamic. And those are formal speeches from the Supreme Leader and their Foreign Minister.” Such statements, in fact, are not new: Ayatullah Ali Khamenei in 2005 announced a fatwa declaring that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam. But Obama’s point was that such language gives Iran a pathway to reach a diplomatic solution without being seen as buckling to Western demands:

“For them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons is not inconsistent with what they’ve said. So it doesn’t require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that’s something they should be able to do without losing face.”

A diplomatic solution is certainly more plausible if Western powers demand that Iran accept more-intrusive inspections and a framework of additional measures and safeguards to verify that its activities are consistent with its statements than if their demand is for Iran to surrender uranium-enriching rights granted by the NPT. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry are among those who have previously warned the Obama Administration that the demand by the Bush Administration and some allies that Iran accept “zero enrichment” is untenable.

By making breakout to weaponization the red line and backing it up with a military threat, Obama offers Netanyahu an opportunity — or a dilemma, depending on his real intentions. Drawing the red line at weaponization means Obama sees no need for military action against Iran on the basis of the current status quo. Instead, he sees sanctions as Iran’s price for failing to satisfy IAEA concerns, while the threat of military action deters it from breaking out to build weapons, and diplomacy is pursued to seek a formula that all sides can live with to strengthen guarantees against Iran’s building nuclear weapons.

If Netanyahu would risk war simply to prevent Iran from having a nuclear infrastructure that would give it the capability to make a bomb — an infrastructure it already has in place — Obama’s position may not be deemed sufficient. But most of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment believe that bombing Iran now would be a mistake, and Israeli public opinion on the issue is highly ambivalent. A survey last week by the University of Maryland and Israel’s Dahaf Institute found that just 1 in 5 Israelis believes Israel should bomb Iranian nuclear facilities without the support of the U.S., 1 in 3 opposes military action entirely, and 43% say Israel should strike only if the U.S. backs the decision.

Some close observers have suggested, in fact, that Netanyahu painted himself into a corner on the issue with his apocalyptic rhetoric. Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote on Friday, March 2, that the Prime Minister, having repeatedly told the Israeli people that Iran’s nuclear program represents nothing less than the threat of a second Holocaust, has limited his room for maneuver. “Wars break out when leaders are pushed into a corner and feel they have no other option, and when the political price of refraining from going to war takes precedence over the logical calculation of the pros and cons of war itself,” Benn noted. “This was the background of two world wars and most of the Israeli-Arab wars. It could happen on the Iranian front as well, if Tehran continues along its present course, if Obama remains adamant in his opposition to an American military operation, and if Netanyahu finds himself in a situation where he will be asked, ‘So what have you done to prevent a second Holocaust?’ “

But if Obama can be shown to have promised a U.S. military response if Iran actually tries to build a bomb, Netanyahu could return home claiming success in winning guarantees from the White House — and use that as an off-ramp from the road to dangerous confrontation without losing face. That, of course, is if he’s willing to accept Obama’s promise that he’s not bluffing about the unacceptability of a nuclear-armed Iran and an outcome that eventually leaves Iran with more nuclear capacity than he’s previously been comfortable with.