The first report of this crisis said that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the US representative at the P5+1 talks with Iran, had said she will no longer be updating Israel about the progress of the Iran negotiations. The same report said that Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor, is cutting off communications with her Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen, who is Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor.
The White House denied the allegations, calling them, “patently false.” It said that, “National Security Advisor Rice maintains regular contact with her Israeli counterpart National Security Advisor Cohen on the full range of issues of mutual concern to our nations, and will in fact meet with him later this week at the White House.” The White House statement does not specifically mention the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The State Department did issue a statement about US-Israeli cooperation on Iran policy. It said, “Secretary [of State John] Kerry continues his conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu about this issue, as has always been the case.”
On Monday, White House Middle East coordinator Philip Gordon met in Israel with both National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz to discuss Iran policy, but there is reason to suspect that neither side was as open to the other as in the past.
According to Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, Obama is no longer willing to be fully forthcoming with Netanyahu over the US position in the negotiations with Iran because he suspects that Netanyahu leaked the latest US offer to Iran about the number of uranium centrifuges it could keep to the Israeli media. On January 31, the Times of Israel and Channel 10 news published stories attributed to Israeli officials claiming that the US had “agreed to 80 percent of Iran’s demands” and would allow Iran to keep using 6,500 or 7,000 centrifuges.
Ignatius’ White House sources do not dispute the Israeli media reports, but they do say that the centrifuge counts are misleading because other technical details in the latest US offer to Iran would effectively slow down any Iranian effort to build a bomb.
US NOW HOLDING BACK INFORMATION FROM ISRAEL
Because US officials suspect that Netanyahu’s office deliberately leaked the information to the Israeli media, they say they can no longer be as open in sharing their negotiating strategy with Israel as they had been.
In response, an official from Netanyahu’s office told Ignatius that, “the details of the last round of negotiations are known in Washington, Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin and Teheran. It is perplexing that a decision would be made to try to keep those details a secret from Yerushalayim when Israel is threatened by Iran with annihilation and its very survival could be threatened by a bad deal.”
Ignatius also says the fundamental dispute between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran predates Boehner’s speaking invitation to the prime minister, which was made on January 21. Obama and Netanyahu are said to no longer be in agreement on what would amount to an acceptable deal with Iran. According to Ignatius, the US goal in the negotiations has always been for Iran to accept a reduced enrichment capacity so that it would take it at least a year to build a nuclear weapon.
US AND ISRAEL NOW HAVE DIFFERENT GOALS ON IRAN
Ignatius reports that on January 12, Obama called Netanyahu to ask for a few more months to negotiate a final deal with Iran that would meet the one year breakout period goal. At that time, Netanyahu told Obama that even a year’s delay was not enough, and that Israel was returning to its original insistence that Iran cannot be left with any centrifuges or enrichment capacity at all.
This is a significant development, because it means that the White House’s goals in the nuclear negotiations with Iran are no longer identical with those of Israel. This explains why Obama has been so opposed to Netanyahu addressing a joint session of Congress about the need for tougher sanctions against Iran just three weeks before the March 24 deadline for reaching an agreement in principle with Iran on its nuclear program.
BOEHNER DIDN’T WANT
WHITE HOUSE INTERFERENCE
Less than ten days after their phone conversation, the White House accused Netanyahu of violating protocol by accepting the invitation from Boehner without clearing it with the administration. In an interview on Fox News, Boehner explained that he told Israel’s ambassador to Israel, Ron Dermer, not to mention the invitation to the White House because the Republican leader, “wanted to make sure that there was no interference.”
Boehner said that he issued the invitation because Iran poses “a serious threat facing the world, and I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu is the perfect person to deliver the message of how serious this threat is. There’s no secret here in Washington about the animosity that this White House has for Prime Minister Netanyahu. I frankly didn’t want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity.”
Whether the initiative for the speaking invitation came from Boehner or whether it was instigated by Netanyahu through Dermer is a matter of bitter partisan dispute, both in Israel and Washington. Democrats have made a point of noting that Dermer, who was born and raised in Miami Beach, was an active Republican political operative before making aliyah in 1996.
A DOUBLE STANDARD FOR ELECTORAL INTERFERENCE
President Obama said last week that Boeher’s invitation to Netanyahu violated a White House principle of non-interference in the outcome of Israel’s election which will be held just two weeks after the scheduled date of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.
The White House announced that for the same reason, Obama will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit to Washington. However, the White House did not apply the same principle to Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting last week with Netanyahu’s main electoral opponent, Yitzchok Herzog, at a security conference in Munich.
Some Republicans believe that one of the main reasons why Obama is opposing Netanyahu’s speech and refusing to see him during his March visit is to hurt his re-election chances in next month’s election. According to one participant, Senator Lindsay Graham told a closed meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition last week, “the president isn’t working for anything in the Middle East except for regime change in Israel.”
The White House has also been quietly urging Democrat senators and congressmen to boycott Netanyahu’s speech, in the hope of pressuring him to cancel it.
Boehner’s office claims that it did not violate diplomatic protocol by inviting Netanyahu to speak without first notifying the White House. It noted that in 2011 it followed a similar protocol by inviting Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, then notifying the White House, and not waiting for its public reaction before announcing the speech. Boehner’s office has also admitted telling Dermer that it would handle liaison over the speech with the White House.
Whether or not the invitation was a violation of protocol is diplomatic hairsplitting. The atmosphere surrounding this invitation is much more bitterly partisan than it was around the invitation in 2011. Boehner was clearly intent on making an end run around the White House, and anticipated its opposition.
POTENTIAL LONG TERM DAMAGE
Supporters of Israel worry about the long term damage the incident might cause. The dispute threatens to undermine a tradition of bi-partisan support for Israel in Washington. It has also given political cover to some of Israel’s critics in Washington to speak up. Furthermore, it caused some previously reliable Democrat supporters of Israel in the House and Senate to waver in the face of White House opposition.
A number of Senate and House Democrats who have supported Israel in the past have given in to White House pressure. They have announced that they will not attend the session, and publicly criticized Netanyahu for accepting the invitation. Other Democrats who are longtime supporters of Israel are keeping silent, embarrassed by the whole episode.
Some secular American Jewish leaders and liberals have called upon Netanyahu to cancel the appearance and stay home, for fear that making the speech will further damage US-Israel relations.
WHITE HOUSE HAS WON THE PR WAR
The White House has already emerged as the clear victor in its public relations war with Boehner and Netanyahu. A poll released last week of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent believed that it was inappropriate for Boehner to ask Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the White House. Only 30 percent supported the move. The rest were undecided.
The reaction in the American media to Netanyahu’s appearance has been almost uniformly negative, assuring that the message of his speech about the dangers of the deal being negotiated with Iran will receive a hostile reception. Netanyahu has also come under intense criticism from the Israeli media for accepting the invitation, but at this point, he remains unwilling to admit publicly to having made a mistake by cancelling the appearance.
NETANYAHU SAYS HE IS ONLY DOING HIS DUTY
In an address to a visiting delegation of the Presidents Conference, Netanyahu said that he felt it was his “sacred duty” to warn Congress about the dangers of the bad deal which the US is about to make with Iran.
Rather than questioning his right to speak to Congress, Netanyahu said, “the real question that should be asked is, how could any responsible Israeli prime minister refuse to speak to Congress on a matter so important to Israel’s survival? How could anyone refuse an invitation to speak on a matter that could affect our very existence?”
He said his speech will “allow Israel to present its position to the elected representatives of the American people and to a worldwide audience, because Congress has played a critical role in applying pressure to the Iranian regime, the very pressure that has brought the ayatollahs to the negotiating table in the first place, and because Congress may very well have a say on the parameters of any final deal with Iran.”
IF IT’S GOOD, WHY IS THE US HIDING ITS OFFER?
With regard to the reported administration complaint that he leaked the latest US proposal to Iran to the Israeli media, Netanyahu’s response was that since Iran already knows what the US is offering, it is only right that the Israeli people should know as well, because Israel is the most threatened by Iran’s nuclear weapons.
In the end, Netanyahu’s argument was simple. “If there is someone who thinks it is a good deal, why is there a need to hide it?”
ARGUING OVER A NEW IRAN SANCTIONS BILL
Netanyahu has said that he intends to use the March 3 speech to urge passage of tough new sanctions in a bill that is under Senate consideration. It would impose further sanctions on Iran if the current talks do not result in a comprehensive agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program by the deadline of March 24.
The administration has argued that passage of such legislation before the deadline runs the unnecessary risk of alienating the Iranians and giving them an excuse to sabotage the negotiations. Secretary of State Kerry pressured Democrats who support the new sanctions, led by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, to demand a delay in the Senate vote upon them until after the March 24 negotiating deadline.
Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, are alarmed by reports of further US concessions to Iranian demands that they be allowed to keep most of their uranium enrichment centrifuges, giving Iran the capacity to rapidly build nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel at will.
Addressing a Tel Aviv conference sponsored by the Institute of National Security Studies Monday, Ya’alon said that under the current terms being offered by the US and its P5+1 allies, “Iran would be allowed to become a nuclear threshold state.” He said that even though Iran has made some minor concessions in the talks so far, they are not enough to prevent Iran from continuing to threaten the region with the knowledge that it could quickly build nuclear weapons any time it wants to.
A KEY CONCESSION ON CENTRIFUGES
Ya’alon explained that the basic mistake that the US and its negotiating allies made was failing to insist that all of Iran’s enrichment centrifuges be removed. Once they decided to allow Iran to keep some enrichment capability that meant that Iran would retain the basic capacity to build nuclear weapons.
“Instead of holding to a rigid and clear position of zero centrifuges, the discussions became about how many they would have,” Ya’alon said, which just determines how long it would take Iran to build the nuclear bombs it wants.
Ya’alon said the only remaining choice for the allies is between accepting the current, bad nuclear deal with Iran or no deal at all. Ya’alon, as well as Netanyahu, would prefer no deal because that would allow the full force of the sanctions to be reimposed on Iran, and strengthened further. Ya’alon said that forcing Iran’s leaders to confront the prospects of sanctions strong enough to cripple their economy is the only way to force them to give up their nuclear weapons program.
GIULIANI CHALLENGES ROUHANI’S GOOD FAITH
Another outspoken critic of US nuclear negotiations with Iran is former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Speaking to an audience of Iranian-Americans in Phoenix, Arizona last week, Giuliani questioned the premise that the Iranians are bargaining over their nuclear program in good faith.
Giuliani noted that Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, served as Iran’s chief negotiator in a previous round of nuclear negotiation with the European powers more than a decade ago. In a biography that he wrote, Rouhani boasted that in 2003 and 2005, while he was in charge of those negotiations, Iran was cheating on an agreement that called for a standstill of its nuclear program.
Given Rouhani’s admission that he had cheated the West on nuclear agreements twice before, it makes little sense to put any trust in a new nuclear deal he might agree to now.
HOW CAN THE US MAKE A DEAL WITH A MADMAN?
Giuliani recalled the nuclear weapons negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They were predicated on US knowledge that the decisions by communist leaders were ultimately driven by logic. The certainty of “mutual assured destruction” should the Soviets violate the terms of the nuclear agreements was seen as a sufficient safeguard that the terms of the deals would be carried out.
However the decisions of the supreme religious leader of Iran are not driven by logic. Giuliani said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is “a madman,” and fear of the disastrous consequences for Iran would not prevent him from carrying out his desire to use nuclear weapons to try to destroy Israel.
Giuliani challenged the morality of the US making any deal with Iran. He said that Iran “has probably been responsible for more American deaths than any single terrorist group, and it is indisputably the largest supporter of terrorism in the world.”
He recalled that the Iranian ayatollahs defied America by holding its diplomats in the US embassy in Teheran as hostages for months, “as they looked into the eyes of a weak president, Jimmy Carter,” but the US hostages were freed the moment a strong US president, Ronald Reagan, took office.
Giuliani said that once again, the Iranians “are looking into weak eyes, the eyes of our president, begging for agreement with Iran at all costs.”
CAN OBAMA’S WORD BE TRUSTED?
Friends of Israel are concerned by reports that if Obama does reach an agreement with Iran, he plans to fashion it in such a way as to avoid the constitutional requirement that it be submitted to the Senate for ratification. That is why the current new sanctions legislation is being crafted in a bi-partisan way so that it can pass the House and Senate, and then be sustained by a two-thirds majority to override a likely veto by President Obama.
In recent public statements, Obama says that he will insist on an agreement with Iran that puts an end to its nuclear threat. He also said that after a year of talks, if an agreement in principle on the main issues cannot be reached by the March deadline, he would not support another extension of the nuclear “freeze” so that negotiations can continue. At that point, Obama claims, he would join with members of the House and Senate in crafting a new bi-partisan sanctions bill on Iran.
To put it bluntly, many Republicans and friends of Israel do not trust Obama to keep that promise. They point to reports that Obama and his administration view the talks with Iran as their last chance to score a major foreign relations achievement during his presidency. They suspect that Obama would be willing to sacrifice Israel’s security in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat if that’s what it takes to cement his legacy as president.
US-IRANIAN PEN PALS
They note Obama’s long history, since shortly after he took office in 2009, of reaching out to Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khameini, through secret letters imploring him to drop Iran’s nuclear weapons program in return for sanctions relief, various forms of US aid, and cooperation against common enemies, such as ISIS.
A report last week said the ayatollah recently responded to a letter that Obama sent him in October that raised the possibility of US-Iranian cooperation in fighting ISIS if they can reach agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. A diplomat who saw the ayatollah’s response to Obama called it “respectful” but noncommittal.
The long correspondence between Obama and Khamenei was described in November by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. He said, “the letters of the American president have a history of some years, and in some instances, there have been responses to these letters.” The Iranian added that there were “contradictions” between the policies laid out in Obama’s letters and US actions in the region.
The ayatollah’s response to Obama’s first letter in 2009 was a long list of complaints about US policy going back to the era of the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979. However, at no point in his secret letters to Obama did the ayatollah shut the door on a possible future deal between the two countries and a thaw in their more than 35-year history of hostile relations.
Despite repeated efforts by Obama to break the long impasse between the US and Iran, the ayatollah has never offered a clearly positive response to Obama’s proposals.
TIME FOR IRAN TO MAKE A DECISION
In comments at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Obama suggested that he is running out of patience with Iran. He said that the latest offer the US and its P5+1 allies, including Germany, had put on the table would allow Iran to develop civilian nuclear power reactors, but not nuclear weapons. Obama said “we’re at a point where they need to make a decision. Does Iran have the political will and desire to get a deal done?” He implied that if Iran couldn’t accept the current offer in principle, there would be no point in further dragging out the talks, which started a year ago and have already missed two deadlines.
Nevertheless, the diplomatic efforts continue. Between formal P5+1 negotiating sessions, Secretary of State Kerry has been meeting with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an effort to close the gaps.
After more than a year of negotiations, there has not been much progress in reaching agreement on the key issues. Despite US concessions increasing the number of centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to keep, Ayatollah Khamenei keeps moving the goalposts, upping Iran’s demands. Even though the US has reportedly agreed to increase the permitted number of centrifuges to as many as 6,500 or 7,000, the ayatollah has said that Iran ultimately intends to operate 200,000 centrifuges to meet its future civilian nuclear power needs.
It is highly questionable that Iran needs any civilian nuclear power reactors, given its huge domestic reserves of crude oil and natural gas. The Iranian nuclear program is thus most likely what it seems to be, a massive national effort to develop nuclear weapons.
The US and its allies have offered a gradual relaxation of sanctions based upon Iran reaching specific goals in dismantling its nuclear program. In a speech last week, the ayatollah demanded an immediate, total end to all the banking and oil export restrictions.
MORE CHEATING AND STALLING
This is not surprising. Iran used the same bait and switch tactics during a decade of fruitless negotiations with the European powers over its nuclear program. During that time, they brazenly cheated on the interim promises they made to halt their nuclear development efforts, ultimately causing the European powers to abandon the talks in disgust.
Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the New York Daily News and chief editor of US News and World Report, writes that Obama’s determination to pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran in Geneva at all costs has confused and alarmed US allies in the Middle East, and left Israel virtually alone in pointing out the dangers of the nuclear-armed Iran which would ultimately result from adoption of the latest American proposal.
There is also no reason to assume that Iran’s behavior in supporting international terrorism and working diligently against US interests around the world has changed for the better. Just because its president, Hassan Rouhani, has been conducting a “charm offensive” in a desperate effort to get Iran out from under the sanctions does not mean that Iran has changed overnight from a sworn enemy of the US to its new best friend in the region. It is important to remember that Rouhani does not have the authority to do that, even if he wanted to, and that all of the important decisions in Iran require the approval of the ayatollah.
IRAN IS NOT MENDING ITS WAYS
There is no evidence that Iran has any intention of mending its ways. In testimony last week before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nick Rasmussen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Iran and Hezbollah “remain committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide and we are concerned their activities could either endanger or target US and other Western interests.” Their tools of choice remain car bombs and kidnapping.
Despite their ideological differences, Iran still retains a day to day operational relationship with al Qaeda, permitting the transfer of al Qaeda fighters from Pakistan to Syria through Iranian territory.
WHERE ARE ROUHANI’S REFORMS?
Rouhanis’s “reforms” have done nothing to improve human rights in Iranian society, which has no tolerance at all for dissidents. Leaders of Iran’s pro-democracy green movement who took to the streets in 2009 to protest a stolen presidential election remain under house arrest, or are subject to torture in Iran’s prison.
Veteran national security reporter Eli Lake asks, “if Iran is unwilling to stop terrorizing its own people, why should anyone think it will stop terrorizing the citizens of its historic enemies?”
In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebels who have now taken over the government and set back the US-supported war against al-Qaeda’s dangerous affiliate, AQAP.
Iran remains committed to supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad as his troops continue to massacre his own people by the hundreds of thousands, and drive them from their homes by the millions. With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Assad has deliberately pursued a policy that turned the popular rebellion against his rule into a region-wide religious war. It destroyed the social fabric of Syria as a country, allowing ISIS to take root there.
Iran-supported Shiite militias in Iraq have alienated the country’s Sunni Arab tribes against the central government, driving them into the arms of ISIS.
Thanks in part to Iran’s policies, ISIS now has a base of operations covering much of Syria and Iraq. ISIS has become a threat to the entire region, and serves as an inspiration and model for Islamic terrorist groups around the world.
For Obama to now ally the US with Iran in order to recruit its help in fighting ISIS would seem to be, at best, short-sighted and counterproductive. Doing so at the cost of permitting Iran to complete its development of nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel and other US allies in the region would be dangerous, to say the least.