Bibi and Obama dovetail – for now

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are no strangers to dissent.

Netanyahu and Obama 370 (photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama 370
(photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are no strangers to dissent. And the remarkable developments in recent days in US-Iranian relations that included a phone call by Obama to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – the first leader-to-leader contact between the United States and Iran in 34 years – seemed to provide the fodder for yet another feud.
The US leader seems more than willing to give the Iranians a chance. In contrast, Netanyahu has expressed his conviction that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who is using diplomatic overtures to stall for time.
However, whatever they truly think about the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the Islamic Republic, Obama and Netanyahu articulated a harmonious dovetailing of positions vis-à-vis the Iranians during their joint appearance before the press after a closed-door meeting at the Oval Office.
Obama said he was “clear-eyed” going into direct talks with Iran, adding, “anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for.”
Obama even noted Israel’s special concerns and sensitivities: “Given the statements and actions from the Iranian regime in the past, the threats against Israel, the acts against Israel, it is absolutely clear that words are not enough.”
More significantly, Obama reiterated America’s commitment to military intervention if necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a point the US president refrained from mentioning during his speech last week before the UN General Assembly. And he framed this commitment as a defense of American – not Israeli – interests: “As president of the United States, I’ve said before, and I will repeat, that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America.”
Netanyahu for his part refrained from speaking of an “Iranian trap” or noting that Rouhani’s speech was “full of lies” as he has in recent days. Instead, he focused on “the bottom line” – whether Iran would be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapon capability.
Admittedly, at this preliminary stage it makes little sense for Netanyahu to use this visit to the US to complicate relations with the Obama administration over direct talks with Iran.
First of all, there is no reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity as a true friend to Israel.
Besides, Americans’ attention is overwhelmingly directed inward toward domestic issues, particularly the imminent federal government shutdown. And when they do give thought to foreign affairs, Americans are decidedly wary of further military entanglements. According to a CNN poll, three-quarters of Americans favor negotiations with Iran.
Also, for the time being there is very little for Netanyahu and Obama to disagree about. There is hardly any substance to an Iranian-American rapprochement beyond words. So far, the Iranians have not offered to freeze or dismantle any parts of their nuclear weapons program. Nor has the US offered to loosen any of the sanctions punishing Iran’s economy.
However, the time is quickly approaching when Iran will make a concrete offer. And therein lies the real danger.
Rouhani might very well attempt a “divide and conquer” strategy, purposely making an offer that some members of the P5+1 – the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany – might find acceptable but which is insufficient to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program or even completely freeze it. Until now the relatively united front against Iran has made economic sanctions so effective.
But cracks in this coalition might compromise the sanctions’ effectiveness.
In such a scenario, with negotiations still underway, Israel would find it much harder from a diplomatic perspective to launch or even threaten to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran. And Rouhani knows this.
So, while for the time being there might not be much for Netanyahu to argue about with Obama or other P5+1 members, a rocky road most likely lies ahead. Netanyahu must stand firm in defense of Israel’s cardinal interests.
And doing so necessitates remaining vigilant and keeping all the options on the table, even as the diplomatic track is tested.