One speech won’t make or break the Iran deal

Tamara Wittes speaks about the relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s imminent speech before Congress, and US-Israel relations.

By
February 26, 2015 22:34
Tamara Wittes

Tamara Wittes. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Tamara Wittes, former deputy assistan5t secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the US State Department, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, closely associated with the Obama regime and an expert on Middle East affairs, does not believe that “one speech, no matter [by whom or] where it is given is going to make more difference in the outcome of the acceptability of a deal than all the work done over so many years” between the super powers and Iran.

In an interview with Ma’ariv, she dealt with all the issues at hand, including the relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s imminent speech before Congress, and US-Israel relations.

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Let’s talk about President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Who is responsible for the unprecedented low point in their relations?

I am not sure that we are in a low point between the administration and the State of Israel. Look at the diplomatic dimension, the intelligence dimension, commercial diplomacy and all the aspects of the bilateral relationship – they are not only strong, they are stronger in many ways today than they have been for a long time. And, in his speech to the Institute for National Security Studies, Ambassador [Daniel] Shapiro listed out only the economic side in his speech and it’s not just a number of numbers.




Everyone I’ve talked to on the US side about their meetings with Israeli counterparts on a day-to-day level agrees we’re cooperating on all kinds of things and, frankly, given the threats we are facing in the region, that’s crucial and I expect it to expand.

There is a problem between the two leaders that can be traced back to their first meeting in the White House, where there was a feeling that Netanyahu was lecturing them and the Israelis felt they were being pushed back too hard on the settlements. So political gaps do exist. But I think that when you have good will at the personal level between leaders and a sense of trust, you can bridge policy gaps.

The problem now is there is rancor, which makes it very hard to bridge those gaps, because if you look at some of the reporting, for example, just over the past week on the question of Iranian negotiations, it seems that from the administration’s perspective, Israel has shifted the goal posts while the game is still being played, and that the administration has been negotiating and talking to Israel on the basis of certain promises of a oneyear threshold for nuclear breakout.

And now the Israeli prime minister is saying that’s not good enough and, according to some news reports, there’s a sense that the administration has promised to be fully transparent and now it’s jerking the rug out from that dialogue, so all of these accusations and counter-accusations just add to the bitterness, the lack of trust, and make it hard to bridge the substantive gaps.

But I don’t think it’s an irreparable crisis. I think that this relationship is too important to both sides and I think it’s possible to fix it.


In the meantime, instead of rehabilitation, we are hearing that the US is excluding Israel from details on the negotiations with Iran. Israel has been thrown out of the room in everything concerning the Iran issue.

From the beginning, Israel isn’t in the negotiations and the question is how does the administration cooperate with Israel in briefing them, and about what’s going on in the room. This is not a negotiation in which Israel could be in the room.

And it’s precisely that fact that makes the Israelis so anxious, because they are entirely dependent on their relationship with P5+1 governments, mainly the US, so that they feel reliant on their trust in the American’s good intentions; their trust that America is looking out for them. So that when they are not getting full transparency, this would only add to their anxiety about the deal, if there is a deal, about what’s happening.

We don’t have a deal yet, but I think you have to look at the American perspective also. The US is playing these negotiations on multiple game boards at once. There are negotiations with the Iranians; there are negotiations among the P5+1; there are negotiations among our coalition governments in Europe, in East Asia, and South Asia, and there are negotiations with our partners in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others with a concern in the Iranian issue.

The US has to balance among all these different game boards at the same time and try to maintain the unity of the international coalition against Iran, because that’s what’s gotten us as far as we’ve gone. We don’t have a deal yet. We will get a deal.

To all this we must add the fact that Israel, too, is playing on several game boards, international and domestic, because Israel is about to go to the polls. When the Israeli domestic sphere, on the political level, interferes with this issue, or endangers the international coalition, we all have a problem; we all lose and I worry that that’s where we are right now.


In Israel there is a conspiracy theory, according to which a deal with Iran could lead to a situation whereby the Americans switch Israel and Saudi Arabia for Iran, and Iran will become America’s new best ally in the region, and the traditional allies, such as Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, will be neglected.

I am glad you asked this question; I have heard the same thing from many Israelis since I got here. It is the unlikeliest theory imaginable.

First of all, the idea that Iran would be a force for stability lacks credibility, because its Islamic coalition has acted in an incredible variety of ways across the region to destabilize it.

We talk about aspirations for regional hegemony. I don’t know if Iran wants to be a regional hegemonizer, I know it wants to be a regional destabilizer in Iraq, for example, so it’s impossible for me to imagine the Islamic Republic of Iran as a force for regional stability.

They would have to completely reinvent their strategic behavior since the revolution, for their strategic concept has always been that they are more secure when their neighbors are insecure.

This is not a basis for security and stability. Everyone I have talked to in the US government is very clear eyed about that reality. And if we try to analyze the effect of a nuclear deal with the superpowers, we’ll reach a similar conclusion. Will it turn Iran into a more aggressive country or a less aggressive country? Personally, I think that if they give up their aspirations to build a nuclear weapon, that’s going to make them more aggressive in every way, because the nuclear option would be a kind of Damocles Sword, a threat they would use in gaining regional hegemony.

If they lose that they are going to have to use every other tool they have, and I know I’m not the only one in Washington who thinks that way.

And I don’t think there is anyone in the Obama administration who is naïve with regard to Iran, especially with regard to Iran’s behavior.

Let us remember that it was only a little while ago that the US government arrested Iranian operatives in the US who were planning assassinations in Washington, so I think we are not under any illusions that this government has changed its spots and become a partner. Indeed, with all the tensions we sometimes have with US/Israel relationships, we want the same things. We want stability, peace, and we want security; I am not sure the Iranians share the same aspirations.


You convinced me, I’m not sure you’d convince Bibi, but …

Why don’t you bring Bibi to our next meeting?


Instead of me bringing him, he invites himself to Congress.
What do you think of his insistence on coming to the US two weeks before a general election in Israel, to deliver a speech before the two houses, behind the president’s back? According to him it’s his national and historical duty.

It’s hard for me to imagine that one speech, no matter where it’s given, is going to make more difference in the outcome of the negotiations or the acceptability of a deal, than all the work done over so many years by Israel and by others to build an understanding of the Iranian threat in the US and the Congress and around the world.

Israel has invested a tremendous amount of diplomatic resources in alerting the world to the Iranian threat.

And intelligence resources. And alarm bells. The world, including the US, understands the urgency of the threat. For years Israel and its supporters have build an incredibly bipartisan consensus in Congress vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Congress has kept a very close eye on the administration and has imposed sanctions even when the administration was reluctant.

That’s a tremendous asset and it’s had a great effect. Is one speech going to weigh more than all of that work? But what this speech has succeeded in doing – unfortunately, because of the way it’s come about and before it even takes place – is that it’s broken that bipartisan defense. It’s destroyed years of work done to build that support in Congress and I hope this isn’t the case, but I worry that it might have the same effect even among the American public.


How does the American public see it?

Americans are loyal. Just as Israelis don’t want others coming in and interfering in their domestic affairs, Americans don’t want others coming in and stomping in local politics.

So that whatever the merits of the issue, if you’re going to force it, you’re going to get some push back.

Troubling to me as an American citizen and as somebody who is very involved in the policy process is to see the way our own policies have affected what has been and what should have been a bipartisan issue.

John Boehner commented on Fox News that he didn’t give the White House more than an hour’s notice, because he didn’t want them to interfere. The Iran nuclear issue, which should have been a unifying factor under our constitution, has now become a polarizing issue that has not helped Washington and I don’t think it’s helped in the US/ Israel relationship.


Do you think that relations between Obama and Netanyahu are repairable?

Our political culture in the US is all about redemption. We love second chances, we love making up.

But the sort of traditional dance of redemption and American political culture is that first you have to come clean; you have to admit your mistakes and then you can come back and be embraced. And I think you can probably think off the top of your head of multiple example of this in the US political system so I don’t think there’s a relationship in American politics that is irreparable and it’s hard for me to believe that a relationship that is important as the US-Israel relationship is irreparable, but I do think that Israel has to overcome the tension and the rancor that has surrounded this issue and be willing to admit where you made a mistake. And without that, it’s going be really hard.

Transcribed and translated by Ora Cummings.


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