Obama Threads the Needle on Iran

President Obama “welcomed” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House Monday, and I’m putting that word in quotes because everybody knows they can’t stand each other.

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets President Obama in the Oval Office. White House Photo: Lawrence Jackson

Netanyahu has been a hardliner his whole career, and his ruling coalition in the Israeli Knesset includes an odd assortment of ultra-Orthodox parties and even harder-line politicians like Avigdor Lieberman.

The chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu was bad from the get-go, and the president’s handling of this key relationship has not been his finest hour, to say the least. But now they need each other.

Iran continues to build centrifuges and enrich uranium to the point where some think it will soon be able to build a nuclear weapon. Israel considers that an “existential threat” because of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s many statements vowing to wipe the Jewish State off the map.

So, lately Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been telling all who will listen that Iran will soon approach a “zone of immunity” beyond which Israel couldn’t take out its nuclear facilities militarily.

Israel is thought to have up to 200 nuclear warheads of its own, but a fanatical, suicidal Iranian mullah could create a second Holocaust with a single nuclear missile aimed at Tel Aviv. No Israeli prime minister could risk that, especially with Iran’s ally Hezbollah pointing 50,000 missiles at Israel right across the Lebanese border.

So, Israel has good reason to worry and not to trust its security to anyone else.

The US has made progress on the diplomatic front. Ehud Barak’s warnings have lit a fire under European countries, which have pushed uncharacteristically hard for tough sanctions against banks and other companies that deal with Iran.  Even Japan and South Korea look likely to comply with an oil embargo.

But China and India—which get 40% of Iran’s oil exports between them—probably won’t go along. And the newly “re-elected” Putin regime in Russia is unlikely to give Europe and the US the time of day on this one.

So, we’re at  a particularly delicate part of negotiations, and the last thing President Obama wants is an Israeli attack on Iran now. Also, let’s be frank, the astronomical gasoline prices that would result from a new Middle East war could fundamentally change the calculus of his re-election campaign.

That’s why the president is playing for time. So, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last week, he declared:

“Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we’re not taking any option off the table, we mean it.

“…As president of the United States, I don’t bluff….When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”

President Obama speaks at the 2012 AIPAC conference. White House photo: Pete Souza

And in a speech Sunday to AIPAC, a leading pro-Israel lobbying group, he dotted the “i”s and crossed the “t”s:

“Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And…I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Before his meeting with Netanyahu, Monday, the president said: “The United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.”

The Israeli prime minister cautiously praised the president’s  remarks, but went on to say:

“Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and..Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions….Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.”

So, here we are: The president has made a big policy change by declaring the US would not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Israel said it would move unilaterally to defend itself, if necessary. The Israel Defense Forces are formidable, but only the US military has the power and weaponry to effectively destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity. And fewer than 20% of Israelis favor a military strike against Iran without US  backing.

What happens next will be decided behind closed doors.  Your move, Bibi.

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  1. Hagel Nomination Fight Is the Neocons' Last Stand | The Independent Agenda - February 6, 2013

    […] He evaded questions, hemmed and hawed over others, recanted  or corrected previous statements, and apologized for some more. He was even outright wrong  that the Obama Administration supported “containment” of a nuclear Iran. (The president wants to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.) […]

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