The next 72 hours are critical for President Barack Obama to make his case to America’s pro-Israel constituencies and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he will continue to follow their lead in dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran. AIPAC’s annual policy conference opens tomorrow in Washington, DC, with an estimated 13,000 participants ready to get fired up and then fan out across Capitol Hill in a vivid display of the Israel lobby’s presumptive political clout. Both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, will address the conference. Obama will, too, in what will almost certainly be his most important statement to pro-Israel constituencies before America’s November 2012 presidential election. His Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, will also address the crowd to assure them that the U.S. military, in Obama’s words, “has Israel’s back.” And, of course, on March 5, Obama and Netanyahu will meet at the White House for a conversation focused on Iran.
President Obama, the notional “leader of the free world,” is desperate for Netanyahu not to derail his re-election campaign with a public dressing-down, either at the AIPAC conference or at the Oval Office press availability for their White House meeting. Tellingly, Obama called in Netanyahu’s American scribe, Jeffrey Goldberg, earlier this week to put his opening offer for Netanyahu on the table. Indeed, Obama starts the interview, see here, by declaring, “First of all, it’s important to say that I don’t know exactly what the prime minister is going to be coming with.”
Obama makes clear that, whatever he might have said as a presidential candidate or in his initial weeks as president, he has disavowed any meaningful interest in “Nixon to China” rapprochement with the Islamic Republic and will continue to follow Israel’s lead on the issue. This confirms our assessment, first advanced in a New York Times Op Ed in May 2009, see here, that Obama was never serious about engaging Tehran. The assessment has since been confirmed by some of the Wikileaks cables, see here and here; moreover, at least two former Obama Administration officials—Reza Marashi and Vali Nasr—are at this point on record saying that the administration was never serious about diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
Now, Obama himself is telling the world that his campaign rhetoric about engaging Iran was a sham. He recounts for Goldberg, “We, immediately upon taking over, mapped out a strategy that said we are going to mobilize the international community around this issue [the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon] and isolate Iran.” This is important in dealing with Netanyahu, because Obama wants the Israeli prime minister to know that he harbors no ambitions for a diplomatic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic—not even in a second term.
Obama then elaborates on a theme that former National Security Council Iran policy chief Dennis Ross and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon have been emphasizing for months: the administration’s policy is not primarily about changing specific Iranian behavior (actual or potential), but rather about weakening the Islamic Republic. On this point, Obama says, “We have been successful beyond most people’s expectations…Iran is isolated and feeling the severe effects of the multiple sanctions that have been placed on it.”
Note that, in Obama’s presentation, the indicator of policy success is Iran’s purported isolation and suffering from the “severe effects” of economic warfare, not changes in any Iranian policy about which the United States has an objection. Obama vows “to continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course.” But he’s not talking about the Islamic Republic making or threatening to use a nuclear weapon—for Obama himself says that Iran has not even decided to make such a weapon. The “different course” that Tehran must take, according to Obama, includes, among other items, to surrender its uranium enrichment program. Such a surrender would eviscerate Iran’s claim to act as a genuinely independent power in the Middle East. Following Israel’s direction, the real goal of Obama’s Iran policy is to make the Islamic Republic so weak that it could not ever act independently to constrain the United States or any of its allies from unilaterally using military force in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Obama also makes clear that his apparent interest in meaningful outreach to the Muslim world, articulated in two 2009 speeches (one in Istanbul, the other in Cairo), and which Netanyahu saw as so threatening to Israel’s regional position, is all in the past. Specifically, Obama says, “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.”
So, according to Obama, the “profound threat” that Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapon poses is that it could “protect” Islamist groups fighting foreign occupation and publics at risk of foreign invasion and abuse, from Lebanon to Bahrain. (Contrast that to Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida; American Presidents don’t characterize that as a “profound threat,” or speculate at length about how Pakistan’s actual nuclear weapons could be given to the Taliban or Al-Qa’ida.)
Obama then pleads for more time—because, of course, Iran hasn’t decided to make a nuclear weapon, so there is time—asserting that he is looking to resolve Israel and America’s problems with Iran’s nuclear program “permanently.” Strikingly, Obama defines “permanently” by referring to two countries where denuclearization was achieved by the overthrow of existing political orders—apartheid South Africa and Libya. Obama is surely not making those comparisons to persuade Tehran of his genuine interest in finding a diplomatic solution.
Obama reminds Netanyahu that he stood with Israel, even when Israeli soldiers killed an unarmed American citizen (who was also a Turkish national) in the “flare-up involving the flotilla” that was trying to bring supplies to a civilian population in Gaza blockaded by Israel. With evident exasperation, Obama asks, “Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?”
It seems clear that Netanyahu is coming to Washington determined to extract from Obama a commitment to use American military power, not to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but at a future point (presumably after November 2012) when there is a general recognition that sanctions have failed to get the Islamic Republic to surrender on the issue of uranium enrichment. That is the crucial bottom line. The problem with Iran’s nuclear program, from an Israeli perspective, is not some threshold of nuclear development that Iran has yet to cross. The problem is the program, as it currently exists and operates.
From the Goldberg interview, we would surmise that it will not be that hard for Netanyahu to extract such a commitment from Obama. But that is going to give Netanyahu bankable leverage over the American President after November 2012—whether that President is a re-elected Obama or a new Republican. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, will be squarely behind the Israeli prime minister on this one. As it becomes ever more evident that Tehran is not going to surrender its nuclear program, even in the face of escalating sanctions, Netanyahu will return to Washington at some point in the next 1-2 years—and he will want the Oval Office’s occupant to deliver on the commitment that Barack Obama is getting ready to give him.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett