Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Obama Backtracks on Threat to Iran

Just days after President Obama promised supporters of Israel that he would “have its back” in a war with Iran, and publicly affirmed to Prime Minister Netanyahu Israel's right to launch a pre-emptive first strike to protect itself against Iran's nuclear threat, the president sent contradictory messages at a news conference. He also agreed to another round of multi-national talks with Iran which start off with little prospect for success. At a press conference last Wednesday, Obama went out of his way to explain to reporters why Republicans were wrong to openly support going to war with Iran over its nuclear threat to Israel. He gave the impression that he would do his best to avoid that necessity. Just a few days earlier, Obama was singing a very different tune. He told the AIPAC conference, “When it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

“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 as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Obama said there, “No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction. And so I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and all of Israel’s leaders. A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.”


The next day when Obama sat with Netanyahu at the White House in front of news cameras, the prime minister referred to Obama’s speech from the day before and gave it this interpretation, “that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions.”




During his AIPAC speech and in his comments at the White House while sitting with Netanyahu, Obama expressed the hope that the nuclear crisis with Iran could be resolved diplomatically. He spoke repeatedly of “a window of opportunity” that would allow a resolution of the crisis short of force. But the talks which were announced the very next day by the European Union’s chief diplomat Catherine Ashton fell very much into the same pattern as previous rounds of negotiations which went nowhere, and which Iran was able to use effectively to stall for time.


There was no indication that the new round of talks would be any more productive than the last one held in Istanbul in January, 2011. Talks failed when it became obvious that the Iranians were unwilling to give up nuclear activities.


Since that time, new evidence has been revealed by the UN’s nuclear weapons watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicating that Iran has been pursuing other aspects of nuclear weapons construction in addition to its enrichment of uranium. Besides stonewalling IAEA requests for information to explain that evidence, Iran twice denied access to IAEA inspectors to a military installation in Parchin where there is evidence that Iran has been working with neutron triggers for nuclear reactors.


Pressed on the issue, Iran recently indicated that it might grant the inspectors access to Parchin, but only if sanctions are eased first. In the meantime, satellite surveillance photos indicate that the Iranians have been busy trying to clean up the site and dispose of radioactive evidence of their neutron experiments before the IAEA inspectors arrive.




The new round of talks with Iran will be held with the five permanent members of the Security Council, the US, England, France, Russia and China, plus Germany, a group known in diplomatic circles as P5+1. The participation of Russia likely dooms the talks. The Russians have been protecting Iran from further Security Council sanctions for years. At the latest meeting of the IAEA, at which new evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons activity was presented, Russia blocked a resolution which would have condemned Iran for stonewalling the IAEA inspectors.


Instead, the Russians demanded that the resolution be watered down to merely call for Iran and the IAEA to “intensify their dialogue” to resolve the standoff, along with a call for “continued support for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.”


The sharp divisions between Russia and the other members of the P5+1 over the ground rules for the talks can only encourage the Iranians to believe that they will not be facing a united international front determined to halt their nuclear program, and that they will once again be able to use the negotiating process to stall for more time to achieve their nuclear goals.




While President Obama has acknowledged that danger, he also made it clear, especially in his press conference, that he was desperate to avoid a military confrontation with Iran, and that he does not believe that the time available to halt the Iranian nuclear program is as short as Israel’s leaders believe it to be.


Shortly after his return to Israel last week, Netanyahu said in a number of media interviews that Israel and the US are using different timetables to assess the Iranian nuclear program, because Israel is more directly threatened by it than the US is.


Asked whether an Israeli attack on Iran was imminent, Netanyahu said that he is not “standing with a stopwatch” for war and would, like Obama, prefer a peaceful diplomatic solution. However, he added that, one way or another, “the threat of Iran with nuclear weapons must be removed. If we don’t make the right decision and prevent it, maybe there won’t be anyone to explain it to.”


In his speech to AIPAC a few hours after his White House meeting with Obama, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel believes that time was fast running out to achieve a diplomatic solution.  “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can wait much longer,” he said ominously.




Before his visit to Washington last week, when asked about the possibility of a new round of nuclear talks, Netanyahu responded that the West needed to demand that Iran first give up its highly enriched uranium, halt further enrichment activities and suspend construction of its new underground nuclear site in Qom, before the talks could begin.


In other words, Israel wanted the world to insist that Iran stop all of its nuclear work before negotiations could start on lifting the sanctions in place. But the EU and the US made no such up front demands before agreeing to the new talks. As Israel’s former Mossad spymaster, Meir Dagan said in a CBS broadcast interview this week, Iran has shown its superior ability to manipulate diplomatic negotiations over the past decade in order to forestall meaningful action against it.


By engaging in new talks with Iran from a position of weakness at the outset, Obama and his European allies are almost guaranteeing that the negotiations will fail. The result would be that more time would be wasted before taking more action to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and by that time, it might be too late. In addition, there is a real danger that in the process of these talks, the West could agree to relax the current sanctions, which have applied the only meaningful pressure to date against Iran.


During his public statements in Washington last week, Netanyahu gave short shrift to hopes for achieving a diplomatic solution. He solemnly emphasized, again and again, his duty as Israel’s leader to protect its citizens from Iranian enemies sworn to seek its destruction. Netanyahu made it clear that Israel was prepared to accept the consequences should it become convinced that it had become necessary to launch a unilateral first strike.




One encouraging sign for Israel emerging from the Iranian crisis has been an awakening by the European country to the danger. Even some Arab states are beginning to speak out against Iran.


Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said in an Israeli media interview that, “especially in light of what is happening today in the Arab world, there is an understanding that this issue will change the Middle East, and not just militarily.” Prosor added that he has heard Arab diplomats say, behind closed doors, that they would even support an attack on Iran.


Prosor believes that Israel could gain from some of the changes now going on in region. “An interesting thing is happening here,” he said. “We see the Saudi ambassador speaking out against Iran. We see the Gulf states speaking out against Syria. . . These are things that did not happen before. There are common interests between countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel and we need to find a way to promote them.”




There has been a lot of talk in the US and Israeli media about fears in Israel about a war with Iran. There has also been a lot of discussion by so-called security experts, both in the US and Israel, expressing doubts about Israel’s ability to carry out a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, or to withstand the inevitable Iranian retaliation.


The individual most quoted as opposing an Israeli first strike has been former Mossad chief Dagan, who is credited with having headed the Israeli covert effort to delay the Iranian nuclear program over the past 8 years through sabotage and assassinations.


Dagan has frequently expressed public opposition to an Israeli first strike, calling it “reckless and irresponsible,” at least at this time. In his CBS interview, he suggested that it may take Iran up to three years to obtain a usable nuclear weapon, and that in the interim he would prefer that the US lead a diplomatic effort, or if that fails, a military campaign to end the Iranian nuclear threat, rather than Israel.


He cited his reasons for opposing Israeli military action now, including the “dozens” of Iranian sites that Israel would have to attack simultaneously in order to cripple the nuclear weapons program.


Dagan also expressed the fear that an Israeli first strike would bring down a rain of tens of thousands of missiles from Iran and its allies in the region. He said that a mass missile attack on Israel’s population centers, “will be a devastating impact on our ability to continue with our daily life. I think that Israel will be in a very serious situation for quite a time.”




Undoubtedly, these difficulties and dangers involved in any Israeli first strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities are real and very serious. Yet, while liberal opponents of an Israeli first strike love to quote Dagan, others suggest that his statements might have quite another purpose. As a master spy and legendary opponent of Israel’s enemies, Dagan could very easily be engaging in a disinformation campaign. By publicly telling Israel’s enemies in Iran what they very much want to hear, that there are serious divisions within Israel’s security community over the wisdom of a first strike against Iran, Dagan may actually be attempting to add to the surprise of the first strike when and if it comes.




Another disturbing aspect of Obama’s news conference was criticism of his potential GOP opponents for re-election for being irresponsible by demanding that the US get tougher on Iran by openly supporting Israel with the direct threat of US military action to halt the Iranian nuclear program.


“Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They’re not Commander-in-Chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war. . .This is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it. And when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.”




Front-runner Mitt Romney said it best last week while campaigning in Georgia: “This is a president who has failed to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran. He’s also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and in fact in our hand, and that it’s unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. . . It’s pretty straightforward in my view: If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change.”


Obama has been running away from the sorry record of his administration’s failed attempts to halt the Iranian nuclear program since taking office. His initial effort to reach out to the Iran’s Islamic leaders through private letters was greeted with scorn and as a sign of weakness. During that period, Obama squandered the single best opportunity to effect regime change in Iran by failing to publicly support the pro-democracy activists who protested the massive voting fraud in Iran’s May, 2009 presidential election. The silence of the US and the West allowed the Iranian leaders to forcibly crush the protests and to retain their hold on power.


Then Obama tried to get the UN Security Council to pass more meaningful sanctions against Iran, only to see the effort watered down by Russia, leaving it up to the US and the EU to impose their own sanctions just a few months ago. While the current sanctions are much more effective than the previous ones, Obama does not have the right to try to take the political credit for them. He consistently opposed the efforts of friends of Israel in Congress to pass much tougher economic and banking sanctions on Iran. Obama only agreed to them when he realized that if he did not, a broad bi-partisan majority in Congress would override his veto. Yet, at his press conference last week, and in his speech to AIPAC, he suggested that he was responsible for the tougher sanctions now in place, as well as the heightened international urgency in trying to defuse the Iranian nuclear menace.




While there is reason to believe that the current sanctions can be highly effective, Obama’s futile efforts to negotiate with Iran’s leaders wasted three precious years before these measures were finally put in place. This allowed Iran to get much closer to entering what Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls a nuclear “zone of immunity.” Barak has suggested that Israel must strike before, that because once Iran enters that zone, an Israeli attack would no longer be able to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.


At his press conference, Obama boasted that “the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war.” He then criticized his Republican opponents for recognizing that the threat to US national security from Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is now so great that the US may soon have no other choice but to go to war to stop it.


“Those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be. . .


“It’s also not just an issue of consequences for Israel if action is taken prematurely,” Obama said. “There are consequences to the United States as well. And so I do think that any time we consider military action, that the American people understand there’s going to be a price to pay. Sometimes it’s necessary. But we don’t do it casually.”


But rather than challenging his opponents for being ready to deal with the consequences of Iran’s progress towards becoming a nuclear power, Obama would do better to admit his own mistakes over the past three years which allowed Iran to get this far, and for putting the US and Israel in a position today in which going to war may be the only viable way to stop them.




On the other hand, the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons at any cost could not be clearer.


In a column for Bloomberg News, Jeffrey Goldberg, who is President Obama’s favorite Jewish journalist and interviewer, suggested that by giving Obama a gift of a Megillas Esther during last week’s visit, Netanyahu last week conveyed his intentions through the story of Purim much more forcefully and directly than any of his own words could. Just a week earlier, a Goldberg interview with Obama published in the Atlantic provided a preview of the message which the president gave to AIPAC and Netanyahu regarding Iran and Israel.


In the wake of Netanyahu’s visit, Goldberg wrote, “The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.”


Goldberg cited various press reports about what went on inside the Oval Office behind closed doors between Obama and Netanyahu. In that meeting, and in his public comments just before it, Netanyahu “stressed Israel’s sovereign right to act against plots forming against it.” On the other hand, according to Goldberg, while Obama confirmed that “Israel has the right to act on its own against the Iranian nuclear program,” and would continue to protect Israel if it came to war, he was not necessarily giving Israel direct “permission to attack Iran.”




In other words, Obama was cautioning Netanyahu, and urging patience, rather than telling him directly that Israel could not attack.


But Goldberg does not believe that Netanyahu will be deterred by Obama’s warning. Because the prime minister sees Iran’s threat to Israel and the Jewish people as equal to that of Nazi Germany, “no argument from Obama is going to keep Netanyahu from his destiny,” which he believes is to act to save his country from Iran’s nuclear menace.


The Washington Post and Bloomberg News contributed to this story.



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