Washington Watch: Running interference

Netanyahu knows Israel’s threat to strike Iran has given impetus to the current diplomatic efforts, and he appears intent on keeping all his options open.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tenacity and shrill warnings have been instrumental in mobilizing international pressure on Iran to abandon any plans to build nuclear weapons. More than anyone else, Netanyahu has put the Iranian nuclear threat high on the international agenda. But can he keep it there? Working in partnership with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPA C) and bipartisan majorities in the Congress, he has demanded and gotten increasingly tough sanctions. Interestingly, when the sanctions succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, he was among the first to sound the alarm.
“Iran is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” he warned again this week.
“We must not let the ayatollahs win.”
He is still peeved that Washington kept him in the dark about last year’s secret negotiations with Iran that led to the current talks and no doubt fears it could happen again. He has persistently demanded Iran totally abandon its civilian nuclear programs as well, claiming that they could easily be converted to military use. He’s not alone in warning that Iran can’t be trusted when it claims it is pursuing nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes.
He supported a Congressional move to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, but the effort was abandoned when President Obama threatened to veto the legislation on grounds it could scuttle the ongoing talks and possibly spark a war.
While publicly sticking to his “Three No’s” policy of no centrifuges, no domestic enrichment and no production facilities, Netanyahu has quietly shifted his focus from halting the talks to monitoring and verification of any resulting nuclear deal. Some backers of the negotiations fear Netanyahu could work closely with supporters and others in Congress who want to set conditions for compliance that Iran will reject and kill the deal.
Netanyahu is also concerned about how swiftly and decisively the US will respond to any Iranian violations.
The administration is striving to keep Netanyahu in the loop. Just this month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice was in Israel to consult on the Iran talks and security issues, followed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and then 1,000 America troops to participate in joint exercises on missile defense. That’s in addition to his frequent talks and visits with the top US negotiator, the secretary of state, the vice president and the president.
The prime minister’s high-profile success in getting world leaders to focus on the Iranian nuclear threat and adopt tough economic sanctions is not without risks.
A nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the entire region, possibly least of all to Israel because it has the power and ability to strike back with its greater force. But that is sometimes overshadowed by Israel’s emphasis on Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel threats coming out of Iran.
The more the Iranian nuclear threat is framed as an Israel-centric issue, the riskier it may become to keep the Europeans on board because many leaders there do not trust Netanyahu and, rightly or not, blame him and his far-right government for the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians. Most condemn his aggressive settlement construction policies, which are prompting some to consider sanctions on Israeli goods produced in the West Bank.
It may not be fair to link the two issues, but they do, and that could translate into a European attitude that hanging tough on sanctions is doing a favor for Israel, and leaders there may want to show their displeasure by softening their demands on Iran.
Netanyahu is not the only one who is skeptical about President Obama’s commitment to the use of force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon if the negotiations fail.
Feeding that skepticism is Obama’s decision to retreat from his threat to attack Syria if it used chemical weapons against civilians. When faced with the proof, Obama hesitated and decided to seek Congressional backing.
Lawmakers were happy to talk tough but loathe to authorize another war.
Obama looked weak for hesitating and weaker for backing down and buying into a faltering Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
At the time it seemed like a good move – less for the Syrians than for Israel when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad admitted he accumulated the weapons for use against the Jewish state – but it soon came to define an irresolute foreign policy. Syria, to the surprise of few, has been dragging its feet on compliance and very likely cheating. Americans don’t want another trigger-happy president like Obama’s predecessor, but neither do they want one who seems too gun shy.
If he can’t smack down Assad, how can he stand up to the ayatollahs? Netanyahu’s response has been if you won’t do it, I will. He has emphasized that message with continued air force long-range mission training, homeland security drills and building advanced new missile defense systems.
Friends in Congress are reinforcing the message. The House Armed Services Committee is putting the final touches on a $600 billion defense bill that is likely to include language ensuring that Israel has the “independent capability to remove any existential threats posed by the Iranian nuclear program.”
Not to be outdone, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA ) has proposed sending Israel a few giant B-52 bombers and super bunker-buster bombs to give teeth to its threats to strike Iran. It’s a dumb idea.
It’s not like renting an SUV at Avis.
Israel doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure or trained crews for the job, but it doesn’t need those Superfortresses, said retired USA F Col. Philip Adelman, a former B-52 navigator/bombardier and a C-130 pilot. It can deliver the huge bombs with the advanced C-130 Hercules, designated Sampson, that were just delivered.
But will Israel actually bomb Iran? Probably not, says Prof. Dan Schueftan of Haifa University. Even if it feels it is necessary to act, Israel is unlikely to do so because “it will be perceived by the American people as though Israel is trying to undermine the negotiations and bring the United States into war.”
But Netanyahu knows Israel’s threat to strike has given impetus to the current diplomatic efforts, and he appears intent on keeping all his options open. If the Iranians and everyone else think he’s crazy and unpredictable, all the better.