In Obama we trust?

US says it will prevent Tehran from getting nukes; whether Israel believes this will decide how J'lem acts.

Netnayahu and Obama stroll in Whtie House 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Netnayahu and Obama stroll in Whtie House 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
In the end, the whole question of what Israel should do about Iran boils down to a simple question: Does Jerusalem trust Washington? Do Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his closest ministers – those who may ultimately have to decide whether or not to attack Iran – believe US President Barack Obama when he says the US will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear arms? To hear Netanyahu speak about the Iranian issue this week – in light of last week’s round of talks in Baghdad between Iran and the world powers known as the P5+1 – the answer is not an unequivocal yes.
Netanyahu, briefed fully by the Americans about the talks with Iran, went public with criticism of the P5+1 negotiation approach.
“Not only do the sanctions need to be harsher, the demands on Iran for which the sanctions are imposed must be strengthened and the powers must insist that Iran fulfill these demands in full,” the prime minister said this week at a speech to the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual conference in Tel Aviv that dealt at length with the Iranian question.
Reiterating what Israel believes must be the demands, Netanyahu said, “Iran must stop all enrichment of nuclear material; it must remove all materials enriched to date from its territory; and it must dismantle its underground nuclear enrichment plant at Qom. Only a specific Iranian commitment during negotiations to meet all three demands and a clear confirmation that they have been executed can stop Iran’s nuclear plan. This should be the goal of the negotiations. But I must say regretfully that this is not what is asked of Iran today.”
Netanyahu said that while the powers should be demanding that “Iran stop all enrichment in light of its serial violations,” there is no such blanket demand on the table. While he praised the imposition of heavy economic sanctions on Iran, he said it “must be accompanied by the demands I outlined. It is the combination of the two that will lead to the stopping of the Iranian nuclear program. It is very possible that the Iranians will temporarily stop their enrichment at 20% percent, but that is not enough. The test will be if the Iranians will agree to stop all enrichment, remove all enriched material and to dismantle their underground nuclear facility at Qom. This is the test and there is no other.”
Netanyahu’s words did not sound like a resounding vote of confidence in the US – and the P5+1’s – abilities to get the job done through negotiations.
And if the negotiations don’t work, does Israel trust that the US will indeed take the military option off the table and actually use it to prevent a nuclear Iran, as Washington has pledged? Obama and other officials have said over and over that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear and that the US policy is to prevent them from achieving nuclear weapons. Containment, Obama said earlier this year, was not an option – prevention is the goal.
But if that is the stated policy declared by everyone from the US president on down, why the doubt and why all the internal debate inside Israel about whether it needs to go it alone? Simple, former Netanyahu National Security Council Uzi Arad said at the INSS conference; Because there is a considerable distance between declarations and actions.
Because there are other trends in US policy that could, in the end, outweigh the original rationale of preventing an Iranian bomb at all costs to preserve Middle East stability and stop nuclear proliferation in the region.
And because there are counter voices in the US – including from influential think-tanks like the Rand Corporation – putting out reports “intoxicated with the concept of preparation and deterrence” which are preparing the US for the inevitable – a nuclear Iran.
All those things sow doubt.
The belief that the US would act militarily as a last resort needed to be strengthened for a number of reasons, Arad said, including for tactical considerations in the current round of talks. For an agreement that will satisfy the US to emerge from the talks, Washington needed to radiate “more determination that if it does not go well, the US will turn to other means,” Arad declared.
He added that trust that the US means what it says can be strengthened through declarative statements, by setting out a clear time line or by spelling out in greater detail what will actually happen if the military option is implemented.
Doubt about the US resolve, by the way, is not only in Israel’s mind, but also – at least according to Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon – in the minds of the Iranians. For if the Iranians did indeed believe that the US and the West were hell-bent on stopping their nuclear program, regardless of how high this would raise the price of oil, then Tehran’s leaders would have stopped the program by now, opting for regime survival over nuclear capability.
Robert Blackwill, who worked on the US National Security Council under George W.
Bush and described himself as a rock-ribbed Republican, said there was another matter complicating the trust, namely the poor state of relations between Obama and Netanyahu.
“It is common knowledge that the Israeli prime minister and the American president don’t like each other very much. And that worries me,” he said.
“I worked in the White House three different times on the National Security Council,” Blackwill continued. “Good relations can soften disagreements, bad relations can exacerbate disagreements. It matters. What we Americans tend to forget is that the fellow who goes to work every morning in the Oval Office is called a homo sapien and he has glands like all the rest of us – and he gets affected by his glands.”
While US ambassador Dan Shapiro took issue with this characterization of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and said the two men have trust in one another, Michele Flournoy, who until earlier this month was the third top official in the Pentagon, said the conversation needed to move beyond the “dynamics between individual personalities.”
Flournoy, currently working for the Obama campaign as co-chair of its national security advisory committee, said Israel’s question of whether to go alone or rely on a broader international effort sustained over time “comes down to your comfort level, your degree of strategic trust that the US will be with you, that others will be with you.”
Flournoy said Israel and the US’s strategic interests on Iran were fully aligned. Both realize a nuclear Iran will lead to a “cascade of proliferation in the Middle East” and both realize it will provide “greater cover for Iran” in the region and for its “destabilizing activities and support for terrorism.” She said it all came down to the credibility of the US commitment.
“Do you believe that we see this in the same way and that the US will ultimately back up our statements with actions,” she asked.
“Actions,” she said, quoting her mother, “speak louder than words.” Flournoy then ticked off diplomatic actions she said the Obama administration has taken to back Israel, from support after the Goldstone Report and the Mavi Marmara incident to a boycott of the anti-Israel Durban follow-up conference and willingness to use a veto to block the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN Security Council last September. Beyond diplomacy, she said it was also worthwhile to look at the US’s military capacity and development efforts in the region, including its force posture of some 40,000 troops and two air-carrier battle groups.
“Look to our actions and make your judgment about credibility,” she advised.
Others, including some ministers in Netanyahu’s government, may take a less sanguine approach and have described in the past a “trust deficit” that accumulated during the first two years of the Obama term. This “trust deficit” stemmed from what officials in Jerusalem termed Obama’s “ambush” on the settlement issue and the Administration’s back-tracking from the letter Bush sent to Ariel Sharon before the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza that outlined the US position on settlements and other issues.
As for Arad, he said he believes the Americans will take action against Iran if need be.
“I am willing to say that I think this will be done,” he commented. “But to say I am sure, or convinced – I will never say that.”
Faith is one thing; certainty and knowledge are something else entirely. Israel’s decision on Iran will ultimately rest on whether it can couple belief with knowledge and come to certain faith that America will do what it has said: keep Iran from getting the bomb.