White House won't let perfect be the enemy of a good deal

Between now and June, the policy debate between the US and Israel may finally revolve around what is practical and achievable.

April 7, 2015 02:17
3 minute read.
White House

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON – Part of the Obama administration’s emerging strategy to sell its nuclear deal with Iran is to admit its flaws.

“This may not be optimal,” US President Barack Obama said over the weekend in an interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. “In a perfect world, Iran would say, ‘We won’t have any nuclear infrastructure at all.’”

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That world is the demand of the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks the dismantlement of Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure for a period far longer than the life of Obama’s deal – which incorporates various sunset clauses, including some provisions lasting 25 years.

“But what we know is that this has become a matter of pride and nationalism for Iran,” the president continued. “Even those who we consider moderates and reformers are supportive of some nuclear program inside of Iran. And given that they will not capitulate completely – given that they can’t meet the threshold that Prime Minister Netanyahu sets forth, there are no Iranian leaders who would do that....”

At this point in the interview, Friedman interrupted the president. Netanyahu had added a new demand in recent days, Friedman pointed out: Iran should recognize Israel’s right to exist as a UN member state.

“I have to respect the fears that the Israeli people have,” the president responded. “This is our best bet, by far, to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”

In 2009, when US and Israeli policy on Iran was largely in sync, the allies were pragmatic in setting forth their policy goals.

Sanctions were intended to force concessions from Iran on the nuclear file in a diplomatic setting. Operation Olympic Games, a series of cyber attacks on Tehran’s nuclear sites, was meant to put time on the clock and prevent Iran from reaching a critically low “breakout” time to the bomb.

The Obama administration is now saying that Israel’s concerns are legitimate, that its fears are real and shared. But its solutions aren’t practical.

The best America can do, Obama says, is put time on the clock – a lot of time, by his measurement. The US can roll back but cannot stop Iran’s nuclear work. It can monitor and inspect invasively, but cannot dismantle or destroy completely without making matters worse in the long run.

At the core of that argument, the White House is not saying this is a good deal in a policy vacuum. It is saying it is an adequate deal in a world of terrible options – one that offers to diffuse a decades-old crisis for a substantial period of time.

At its sunset, Iran might be a different place, the president says. Its government might change through engagement with the West or the coming surge in foreign investment.

But revealingly, in describing his foreign policy doctrine to Friedman, Obama admitted that the policy could fail – today, tomorrow or at its sunset, in years’ time. And at that point, should Iran still seek nuclear weapons, America’s military might will still be at its disposal.

Israel contends that, on the contrary, the deal makes matters worse. Codifying Iran’s nuclear program in the United Nations Security Council will, as Hezbollah’s leadership claimed last week, ensure that Iran is part of “the nuclear club.”

“What has been illegitimate is being legitimized,” Netanyahu charged on Sunday.

Between now and June, the policy debate between the US and Israel will not be over talking points that are “good” and “bad,” or over the politics of the Israeli prime minister and the American president. Rare for Washington, the debate may finally revolve around what is practical and achievable.

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