President Barack Obama acknowledges applause before he delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014..
(photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
The circumstances surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech before Congress next month, due to focus on the dangers of a nuclear Iran, have aroused a tremendous amount of controversy.
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether Netanyahu should go through with his speech – which is expected to be critical of the Obama administration’s policy vis-à-vis Tehran – the fact remains that a majority of Israelis are sincerely concerned that the White House has lost its resolve to stop the Islamic Republic’s march to nuclear weapons capability. This concern is well-founded.
Israel, the Saudis, the Jordanians and other American allies in the Middle East that would be directly threatened if Iran’s mullahs have weapons of mass destruction look around warily at President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and see few reasons to be optimistic.
In May 2009, Obama promised during his first joint press conference with Netanyahu at the White House, “We’re not going to have talks forever. We’re not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear – and deploying a nuclear weapon.”
Yet six years later, Obama has little to show for his policy of engagement with the mullahs. The Iranians continue to develop centrifuges equipped with most advanced technologies, have maintained a stockpile of enriched uranium and have refused to give in to any of the most substantive demands made by the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, France and Britain – and Germany).
Instead of sticking to his word and setting a final deadline for negotiations, Obama has insisted on leaving open the possibility for indefinite talks. He vows to veto a bipartisan bill that would take the modest step of replacing sanctions lifted after the signing of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action if Iran remains intransigent through June, when the third deadline for the interim agreement expires.
What was supposed to be a six-month interim agreement is in its 13th month and there is no end in sight.
Amplifying the concerns of Israelis and other American allies in the region is the increasing awareness that engagement with Iran is part of a broader US retreat on the international stage. From Iraq to Syria to Yemen to Ukraine, Obama is systematically scaling down America’s global commitments.
This conscious decision to adopt a more isolationist foreign policy was apparent as early as June 2009, when revelations of a fraudulent presidential election in Iran sparked a grassroots uprising referred to as the Green Revolution.
The Obama administration refrained from taking a strong stand against the violent repression of the demonstrations by Iranian police and paramilitary Basij forces that left dozens dead and hundreds imprisoned.
The most famous victim was Neda Soltan, shot down in the streets of Tehran by security forces, whose last moments of life went viral on YouTube.
If Obama had reacted decisively he could, perhaps, have led a Western coalition that threatened the Iranian regime with crippling economic sanctions and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats unless the repression stopped. At the very least, this would have strengthened the dissidents and sent a clear moral message.
In the years since, Obama has continued to withdraw US military force and influence from around the world.
He failed to maintain a residual troop presence in Iraq, which has made Islamic State’s offensive there much easier. He issued a threat against Syrian President Bashar Assad that the US would retaliate if Damascus dared to use chemical weapons, but backed down when Assad crossed this redline. He has watched silently as Yemen has been taken over by Shi’ite Houthi insurgents backed by Iran.
The US has resisted declaring war on Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, it has sent Ukrainians aid but not arms.
Israel and other US allies in the region take note of these developments and feel increasingly vulnerable. Will the US show the same lack of resolve against the Iran? Whether or not Netanyahu makes his speech to Congress, the message needs to be clear: Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped and not enabled by a bad deal pushed through by Obama.