Bibi, Barack and Iran
Sep 27, 2012 | Amotz Asa-El
In the spirit of September’s Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Iranian policy has become a focus of the season’s soul-searching.
A lot has happened since Netanyahu’s return to the Premiership, two months after Barack Obama landed in the White House. What his predecessors saw as an international problem whose treatment should be led by the United States, Netanyahu aired loudly in high-exposure forums like the United Nations General Assembly, the US Congress, and the AIPAC policy conference.
Whether or not it was his intention, this attitude in itself created the impression that an increasingly impatient Israel was trying to replace an ostensibly reluctant America as leader of the global effort to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu, to be sure, never actually went quite that far. He did not stand in the way as Washington led the diplomatic siege on Teheran, first in the International Atomic Energy Agency, where the effort to expose Iran’s nuclear activity is concentrated, and then at the United Nations and the European Union, which were the focus of the sanctions campaign against the Islamic Republic.
Moreover, Obama remained as verbally committed to the struggle against Iran’s nuclear program as his predecessor, repeatedly declaring his resolve to prevent Teheran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
However, the White House that Netanyahu faced was markedly different from the one with which his predecessors dealt. George W. Bush’s relations with Ariel Sharon were characterised by admiration and warmth, and the former President became so friendly with Ehud Olmert that the latter continues to visit Mr. Bush in his retirement at his Texas ranch. There has been no such intimacy between Netanyahu and Obama, whose “New Beginning” speech in Cairo half-a-year after assuming the presidency was received in the Prime Minister’s circle as both unfairly and irresponsibly anti-Israeli.
Obama’s failure to visit Israel while in Egypt, as opposed to Bush’s two and Bill Clinton’s four presidential visits to Jerusalem, further exacerbated the impression that relations between the American and Israeli leaders are no idyll.
This was the setting in which Netanyahu was pressing for action in Iran, even while the Obama Administration was in the process of retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, however, international, regional, and Israeli developments have reshuffled the deck of cards in a way that has forced all players to reconsider their original plans, whatever those may have been.
The most significant development over the past three years on the Iranian front, in terms of its nuclear program, has been the intensification of the sanctions originally imposed by the UN during the Bush years.
What began with a demand to halt uranium enrichment, and then morphed into an arms embargo and personal sanctions against individuals involved in the nuclear program, has been upgraded during the Obama years to a freezing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards assets, limitations on Iranian navigation, and obstruction of Iranian offshore banking and foreign banking in Iran. The European Union, meanwhile, added bans of its own on insurance activity before ceasing in July to buy Iranian oil and freezing the Bank of Iran’s assets.
The effect of all these measures on the Iranian economy has been harsh. Inflation is believed to be fast approaching triple-digit levels, while reports proliferate about food shortages from meat to milk; rampant unemployment, especially among educated young adults; a sharp drop in oil output due to a lack of foreign demand; and a plunge in industrial production due to shortages of imported raw materials.
Meanwhile, Teheran is bracing for a presidential election next June in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely accused of having rigged his re-election in June 2009, will not be able to run due to a legal two-term limit. Having been the public face of Iran’s nuclear militancy, Ahmadinejad’s departure might offer the Mullahs a way to quietly change course, as they reassess their foreign policy in the wake of the turbulence throughout the Arab world.
On that front, too, circumstances have changed beyond recognition since Obama and Netanyahu assumed office.
The Middle Eastern upheaval has placed Iran on the defensive, as its main anchor in the Arab world, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, is facing a rebellion that many believe the Syrian president cannot endure. Assad’s prospective departure would likely spell the end of his Alawite minority’s rule, and its replacement by some kind of Sunni-dominated alternative. Such a configuration would likely be cool toward Shi’ite Iran at best, hostile at worst, as the ayatollahs are seen in Syria as the suppliers, inspirations, and also micro-managers of oppression by the current regime – dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
The Iranian position in Syria has become so precarious that Teheran now finds itself at verbal loggerheads with Ankara, which has been backing the anti-Assad rebels and sheltering thousands of pro-Assad refugees.
The Arab upheaval is also likely to embolden those parts of Iranian society that took to the streets in 2009 before being crushed by Ahmadinejad’s riot police and secret services. The 2009 rioters are now likely to be joined by a new class of political discontents, ones driven not by yesterday’s thirst for freedom, but by today’s hunger for bread and meat. More importantly, since 2009 millions of Iranians have seen on TV and on the Internet how one Arab country after another violently unseated autocrats through popular rebellion. Suddenly, Iranians face an unfamiliar situation whereby most Arabs are freer than them.
All this, in short, gives some analysts reason to wonder whether perhaps the blow to the Iranian regime might not come from within rather than from without, provided Western leaders display historical patience and political poise.
These external circumstances might or might not have been reason enough for Netanyahu to reconsider his Iranian stance, but increasingly circumstances at home have also been changing unfavourably for him.
In a public debate that began last year in the press concerning a prospective attack that was repeatedly presented as the joint brainchild of Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak , the idea of an Israeli-led attack has come under fierce attack. Among the most vehement critics is the former head of the Mossad spy agency Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Meir Dagan. Dagan was later joined by the former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency Yuval Diskin, both of whom are believed to have been backed while in office by then Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (Res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, although, unlike his two colleagues, he has not discussed the Iranian issue publicly.
Dagan’s and Diskin’s opposition was both tactical and political, arguing that a military strike’s retaliation might prove exorbitant in terms of human lives and material damage. Moreover, an Israeli strike, they said, would delay, but not undo, Iran’s nuclear quest. Beyond that, they said, Iran is a threat to the entire free world and as such its containment should be led by the US. Such misgivings are reportedly harbored also by the three’s successors, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Beni Gantz, Mossad head Tamir Pardo, and head of Shin-Bet Yoram Cohen.
Meanwhile, the professionals were joined by various politicians, first and foremost President Shimon Peres, who said in a rare pronouncement about a prospective attack that “it is clear Israel will not be able to do such a thing alone.” Peres is believed to have been quietly joined by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, a loyal and crucial ally of Netanyahu’s that rarely differed with him on foreign affairs.
Faced with this formidable, and generally impartial opposition, Netanyahu returned to his diplomatic effort, and focussed on demanding from Obama that he set for Iran clear “red lines”, whose violation would trigger American action. But Obama rejected Netanyahu’s demand, explaining that no leader wants to tie his own hands.
Instead, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta explained that the American stance remains that Iran has yet to decide to build nuclear weapons, and that such a decision would take a year to execute, which in turn would offer sufficient time for American military action. Netanyahu, however, thinks that for Iran to acquire the ability to build a bomb, even without deciding to do so, should result in its program being attacked.
Even so, Netanyahu’s pressure might yet bear fruit. His diplomatic record during his current premiership has been rather impressive, highlighted by his prevention last year of the Palestinian plan to unilaterally declare statehood with UN backing, and the repelling of anti-Israeli flotillas via cooperation with third countries like Greece.
For now, Netanyahu says that he will judge diplomatic action as effective provided Iran halts uranium enrichment, dismantles the underground nuclear enrichment facility at Fordow, and removes from Iran all uranium that has already been enriched.
As both Obama and Netanyahu prepare for elections, the only thing that is clear is that if either of them ends up leaving office American-Israeli dialogue concerning Iran will start almost from scratch. In the more likely event, whereby the two are reelected, the current assessment in Jerusalem is that all will be waiting to see how things unfold in Iran in the wake of its own election next year, and only then make their moves.
Until then, Netanyahu will likely seek credit for, as he sees it, having prodded the international community to intensify sanctions on Iran.