WASHINGTON – A scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal would result in rockets falling on Tel Aviv as Israel would “bear the burden” of a US military attack on Iran, US President Barack Obama told a delegation of Jewish leaders at the White House on Tuesday.
The meeting, held in the Cabinet Room for over two hours, featured a passionate president intent on winning over skeptics of the signature agreement. The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPOA), is intended to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear work for a 15-year period in exchange for sanctions relief.
According to National Jewish Democratic Council chairman Greg Rosenbaum, one of nearly two dozen heads of Jewish organizations at the meeting, one of the participants took umbrage with Obama’s characterization of those who are opposed to the deal as warmongers. The president then launched into an explanation of why he believed that the rejection of the deal would ultimately lead to a US military attack. Obama said that if Congress rejected the deal, the Iranians would walk away from negotiations and he would be under intense pressure to take military action.
This, Rosenbaum quoted Obama as saying, would be disastrous for Israel and the US.
Iran deal in a nutshell
Iran, with its annual $15 billion military budget, would not go to war with the US, with a defense budget of nearly $600 billion a year, but would fight an “asymmetrical” war, the president said.
Another participant in the meeting, Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, confirmed the conversation.
Obama mentioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for the invasion of Iraq, as well as his skepticism over the JPOA, an interim nuclear accord that was in place during the negotiations, he said.
“He approached it in a lawyerly fashion,” Wexler said, who thought some minds may have been changed during the meeting.
However, a third participant disagreed. Few skeptics were converted, he said, adding that nearly half of the meeting focused on the president’s tone in describing critics of the agreement.
“He acknowledged how people in Israel and people who love Israel are deeply concerned and skeptical. He wasn’t dismissive of that,” the third source said, requesting anonymity to express frankness.
Several figures in the room questioned Obama’s equating skeptics of the deal to “neocons” responsible for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“He said he would be sensitive and careful about this,” the source said. “But recognizing that it makes folks uncomfortable, he basically said he really does believe that a rejection of the agreement would lead to war.”
Rosenbaum, who supports the deal, said that Obama mentioned the possibility of suicide speed boats ramming into a US aircraft carrier, but that Israel would “bear the brunt of the burden” as rockets would fall on Tel Aviv.
Referring to AIPAC plans to spend some $20 million in a public campaign against the deal, the president said that it was that organization’s right to lobby Congress, but the arguments must be made on the merits of the case, and they should not be personal, including attacks on other Jews who supported the deal.
If the attacks turn personal, he cautioned, then it would weaken the American-Jewish community and as a result the strength of the US-Israel relationship. Rosenbaum said that he himself spoke at the meeting about how his organization, which supports the accord, received extremely hateful messages from other Jews opposed to the deal.
Obama, according to Rosenbaum, bewailed that AIPAC brought some 600 people to Washington this past Friday to lobby Congress against the accord, but were willing to give White House officials only 30 minutes to meet with the group. Then, the president said, the lobbyists gave fact sheets to the congressmen that he said were factually incorrect.
The result, Obama complained, was that he then had to spend 45 minutes with each congressman disputing AIPAC’s claims.
Obama, who was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden as well as key advisers such as Ben Rhodes, met with the group for more than two hours and, according to Rosenbaum, spoke at the outset for 20 minutes, going through the history of the deal.
He said that when he came into office he came in with three guiding principles on the Middle East: that Iran not achieve a nuclear bomb, that the “unbreakable” bond with Israel be made even stronger and that the US achieve its foreign policy objectives through diplomacy, not military action.
He told the participants that when he came into office in 2009 he was surprised to discover that despite all the talk about the possibility of the Bush administration launching an attack on Iran to scuttle its nuclear ambitions, there was no operational military plan in place. He said that he ordered one to be prepared.
He said that the issue was not a personal one between him and Netanyahu, and that he is ready and willing to meet the prime minister and discuss what the US can provide to make Israel feel more secure.
Netanyahu, the president said, has been unwilling to hold those discussions.
Rosenbaum said that Obama’s belief is that Netanyahu was unwilling to discuss a “compensation” package because it would be perceived as raising the white flag in his efforts to defeat the accord.
Asked why Obama does not take his case for the deal directly to the Israeli public, Obama said that he intended to do so in September via Israeli journalists.
Among the participants in the meeting were two AIPAC representatives, two from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, two from J Street and one from a variety of other American-Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.