Dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions under its new president
Oct 2, 2013
October 02, 2013
Number 10/13 #01
Today’s Update offers analysis of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s powerful speech at the United Nations General Assembly overnight which came a day after his joint press conference with President Barack Obama where they offered a united front on the Iranian nuclear issue. In his address, Netanyahu reminded the world that Iran’s ambitions for nuclear weapons remains unchanged. Describing Iran’s new so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, recounting Iran’s three decades of support for terrorism, and the regime’s deception in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Netanyahu insisted economic sanctions must remain in place substantive concessions are offered by the regime. Netanyahu also promised that Israel would act alone if it meant preventing Iran gaining the bomb. To read and or watch the speech, click here.
First up, Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin looks at US, Israeli and Iranian calculations since all three countries’ leaders have addressed the UN over the last week. Tobin sees Iran applying a two-fold strategy under Rouhani. That is, an easing of the crippling sanctions regime whilst still edging ever closer to crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. Meanwhile, Netanyahu might not publicly admit it, Tobin writes, but he senses “that the president has no intention of confronting Iran and will always seek to avoid having to make good on his own promises to stop Tehran. So what alternatives does Israel have at this point to waiting for Obama to come to his senses? Sadly, there are none that make any sense that I can think of.” Despite this, Tobin cautions making waves with the US Administration, suggesting that Netanyahu will have to wait until Obama wakes up to Rouhani’s ruse. To read this article, CLICK HERE.
Next, far less pessimistic is Aaron David Miller, former Middle East adviser to numerous US administrations, who writes that “the alert level on the Iranian charm offensive is incredibly high, and Obama is likely to be cautious and risk averse when it comes to the nuclear issue.” On the Iranian side, he sees a regime that “is probing to see whether it can get sanctions relief without giving up all of its nuclear gains” and is unlikely “to drop the program’s military aspects without major concessions from the United States.” To read this analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, the Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon praises Netanyahu’s speech for its clarity of thought on why Iran cannot be trusted to acquire nuclear weapons. Keinon notes that Netanyahu refuses to avoid references to Jewish cultural, religious and historical experience to enhance his points. To read this interesting take, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Jeff Goldberg doubts there will be any tangible change in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nor its relations with the US.
- Likewise, Michael Totten says Iran has changed its mask but not its real face.
- David Horovitz suggests that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be delighted at the response his country’s new president has received from the international community.
- Iran’s Arab neighbours are also warning against falling for the charm of Iran’s new president, noting that Teheran wants its sponsorship for Hezbollah and Syria to be off limits in any potential engagement with the West.
- Ben-Dror Yemeni criticises European Union countries that fund NGOs which delegitimise Israel and promote a Palestinian supposed “right of return”.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Commentary, October 1, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly today and drew attention to the obvious fraud that is the Iranian charm offensive. After a week in which the international community and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheered on by the mainstream media celebrated new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate who offers a chance to end his country’s nuclear standoff with the West, Netanyahu tried to play the spoiler at the party. Yet while his arguments detailing the record of both Rouhani and the despotic regime he serves were unanswerable, his speech didn’t get much more applause than his much lampooned cartoon bomb “red line” speech got last year from the same podium. Nor is there much reason for the Iranians to believe his threats about Israel being prepared to launch a strike on its own to stop the nuclear threat. Last week’s decision by President Obama to reach out to Rouhani and to initiate yet another diplomatic process virtually ensures that Iran can laugh at Netanyahu’s vow to act alone if necessary.
Though Netanyahu and President Obama seemed to be on the same page on Iran when they met at the White House yesterday, there’s little doubt that Israel’s isolation on the issue is greater than it ever has been. The bottom line here is that as long as Obama is prepared to engage with the Iranians, no matter how transparent the falsity of Rouhani’s position or how unlikely new talks will be to produce any sort of nuclear deal, Israel is effectively disarmed. As I wrote yesterday, a new round of talks between the West and Iran is no more likely to succeed than all of the ones that preceded it. As Netanyahu said in his speech, Rouhani has bragged about his own role in Iran’s clever negotiating strategy that suckers the West into thinking they have a deal while Tehran wins more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. More such dead-end talks will enable Iran to continue to run out the clock until they can achieve their nuclear ambition.
But like his efforts to debunk the Rouhani-as-moderate theme, it’s not clear there is any reason for the ayatollahs to worry much about Netanyahu’s vows about never allowing a regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction to go nuclear.
Netanyahu’s analysis of what Rouhani tried to do in New York was accurate. Though some credulous Western journalists have taken to speaking about him as if he is a latter-day Bobby Kennedy, his involvement in all of the Islamist regime’s outrages—including terrorism—during the last three decades is a matter of record. That some media outlets were even prepared to buy into the false story line that he had denounced the Holocaust was proof of how eager many Americans are to believe any lie so long as it absolves them of the obligation to do something about Iran.
That Rouhani lied on the UN podium last week about Iran’s nuclear program is not really in dispute. While experts differ as to how far away they are from nuclear capability, there is little dispute that the growing stockpiles of enriched uranium as well as their plutonium option is bringing Iran closer to the moment when they will have a bomb that will destabilize the region and threaten Israel’s existence.
But while America is talking with Iran, Israel cannot attack no matter what Netanyahu says, and he knows it. The prime minister has wisely sought to minimize conflict with President Obama but by now he has to understand that the president has no intention of confronting Iran and will always seek to avoid having to make good on his own promises to stop Tehran.
So what alternatives does Israel have at this point to waiting for Obama to come to his senses? Sadly, there are none that make any sense that I can think of.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens ponders this question in his column today and I agree with his analysis of the Obama administration’s intentions. As he writes, Israelis who think Obama will ever strike Iran are “fooling themselves.” But I disagree when he says that what Israel must do in response to the president’s inaction involves “downgrading relations with Washington.”
It was one thing for Netanyahu’s predecessor to ignore American advice to accept a Syrian nuclear program back in 2007 and take it out in an air attack, an example Stephens rightly cites as a correct decision on the part of Ehud Olmert. But Iran’s nuclear program presents a far more difficult target. It cannot be neatly made to disappear with a single simple surgical strike. Eliminating this threat would require an air campaign that would present enormous logistical and military problems that would strain the resources of the United States, let alone those of Israel. But even if Israel was capable of eliminating the Iranian threat on its own, doing so while the United States is engaged in negotiations with Tehran simply isn’t going to happen.
Israel can and should say no to the United States when its security is at stake. Nor should it, as Stephens says, worry much about gaining international approval. That is never going to happen because of factors that are rooted more in anti-Semitism than any disapproval of Israeli policies.
Yet as frustrating as America’s dalliance with Iran may be, cutting itself loose from its alliance with the United States isn’t an option for Israel any more than ridiculous proposals being floated elsewhere for Jerusalem to upgrade its ties with China in the hope of creating some positive leverage over Washington. American support for the Jewish state is embedded in this country’s political DNA and is more proof of American exceptionalism. It cannot be duplicated anywhere else on the globe.
Stephens is right when he says the current situation leaves Israel reliant on Iranian hard-liners to sabotage any nuclear deal. That may not be much of a strategy, but it may prove true since it is unlikely that even so-called moderates like Rouhani have any intention of giving up Iran’s nuclear program.
But until the moment when the U.S. administration wakes up to the Rouhani ruse, Israel has little choice but to stand by and wait and worry. So long as they’ve got Obama swallowing Rouhani’s bait, the Iranians have little to fear from Israel. That’s bad news for Netanyahu and Israel. But it is just as sobering for Americans who realize that despite Obama’s tough rhetoric about Iran, what the administration is doing is bringing us closer to the day when Tehran will go nuclear.
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Aaron David Miller
September 29, 2013
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once told me that all Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open. Israel is a tiny country in a dangerous neighborhood. Worrying is a big part of the job description.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed serious concern about wily Iranian mullahs bearing gifts. So when he sits down with Barack Obama on Monday at the White House, should he be worried that the president is planning to cut a deal with Iran at Israel’s expense?
Absolutely not. Either there will be a very good deal that will take care of both U.S. and Israeli concerns on the nuclear issue, or there will be no deal at all. And here’s why.
First of all, the president worked hard to reset his relationship with Netanyahu and Israel this past year, so he isn’t going to undo the progress he’s made without a compelling purpose.
Tensions with Israel during his first term not only brought zero benefits on foreign policy, but actually became gratuitously harmful, gave Republicans a chance to hammer him, and raised concerns within his own party about his pro-Israel credentials. Given his domestic travails and the 2014 midterms, the last thing he wants or needs is a fight with Israel.
For another thing, in his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, the president identified two key foreign policy priorities in his second term: Iran and the Palestinians. Israel sits at the nexus of both. Managing, let alone resolving, those issues requires close understandings with Israel. To put it more bluntly, if Obama is to have any hope of avoiding war with Iran on the nuclear issue, he will have to keep Israel close. And any chance that Secretary of State John Kerry may have to push the peace process forward depends on getting along with Netanyahu, not alienating him.
Then there is the fact that Hasan Rouhani isn’t Anwar Sadat. And Iran isn’t Egypt in 1977, suing for peace with Israel — or the United States for that matter. The mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables. And that’s not going to happen quickly or easily given the withholding nature of the Supreme Leader, who may actually see benefits in keeping the U.S.-Iranian relationship in a kind of managed tensions.
Finally, Obama simply can’t afford to be played the fool by Teheran. It’s true Iran plays three-dimensional chess in its foreign policy while we seem to play checkers. But the alert level on the Iranian charm offensive is incredibly high, and Obama is likely to be cautious and risk averse when it comes to the nuclear issue. Besides, there’s no issue that unites Congress like its mistrust of Iran. The administration would be hammered for showing signs of weakness without tangible and compelling concessions from Teheran. And Obama himself has staked much of his personal credibility on stopping Iran from acquiring a weapon. He has a huge incentive to make a deal — but only if it can credibly accomplish that end.
Netanyahu does face significant challenges. But neither has much to do with Barack Obama. First, the Israeli prime minister confronts a tough and wily Iranian regime that’s close to crossing the nuclear threshold but is probing to see whether it can get sanctions relief without giving up all of its nuclear gains. Indeed, it’s far from certain that despite the pain of sanctions, the Supreme Leader is in any hurry to drop the program’s military aspects without major concessions from the United States.
And then there’s Netanyahu himself — a man who can also be his own worst enemy when his suspicions and inflexibility get the better of him. Whether the Iranian charm offensive is a trap or an opportunity isn’t clear.
But, regardless, right now Israel needs a strong, confident, pragmatic hawk to deal with that dynamic — a leader who is suspicious of Iran’s opening, but who’s also open to a deal, to probing whether what Iran is selling is real, marketable, and profitable for both sides. Israel needs a leader who’s willing to trust and verify the motives of its close ally and then, if an agreement makes sense, to concede what he must. If — and it’s a galactic “if” — an agreement that ends the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program with comprehensive inspections is to be reached in return for dismantling of sanctions and Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian use, everyone — the Iranians, the Americans, and the Israelis — will need to concede something significant.
The art of diplomacy is having the courage, wisdom, boldness, and prudence to determine whether the price you have to pay is worth what you’re getting in return. It’s a weighty decision indeed, particularly when the alternatives seem to be an Iran with a bomb or bombs over Iran.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled Can America Have Another Great President?. “Reality Check,” his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.
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October 02 2013
PM’s remarks at the UNGA are intended less for Iranian leadership, more for countries set to engage with smiling Rouhani; Netanyahu wants to instill idea of possible Israeli strike as world begins to speak with Iran.
Love or hate him, respect or disdain him, few can deny Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is an effective and powerful speaker. And one of the elements that makes him so is his ability to simplify.
At the UN General Assembly meeting last year, Netanyahu took out a cartoonish poster of a bomb to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear program that everyone could understand. At first he was mocked, yet – as The Washington Post editorialized months later – the Iranians took notice and have not crossed that line.
On Tuesday, he also made things very simple.
“I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Netanyahu said toward the end of a 30-minute speech devoted overwhelmingly to the Iranian nuclear issue. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
Can’t get any simpler, or clearer, than that.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map,” he said. “Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.”
Those words were meant less for the Iranian leadership and more for the heads of the countries now set to engage the smiling, benevolent-looking, soft-spoken Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
With these words, Netanyahu put them on notice that if they fall prey to Rouhani’s tricks, if they let him off the ropes where the sanctions have now placed him, then Israel – even if it must act alone – will act.
Is he bluffing? Maybe, but Israel has proven in the past – particularly with its attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and again reportedly against a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 – that when it feels its back is against the wall, it will act as it sees fit, even against world opinion.
One of the governing assumptions in Jerusalem over the last few months has been that the world finally applied harsh sanctions on Iran in large part because it feared an Israeli military action. It was no coincidence that the harshest sanctions were taken in 2012, after a very public debate in Israel over when and how and if to attack Tehran.
Only when the world was convinced that Netanyahu was serious and might indeed take military action did Europe implement sanctions that even Netanyahu admitted have crippled the Iranian economy. And these sanctions were counterintuitive in that they also hurt European economies at a time when they were hurting badly enough as it was.
The fear of Israeli military action, and how that could devastate the world’s economy, overcame a concern in Europe about how sanctions would impact their own.
Netanyahu wants the idea of a possible Israeli strike still firmly in the world’s mind now as well, as it sits down to speak with Iran.
It was telling what Netanyahu did not say in his address. He did not say not to negotiate. He did not rule out or even come out against diplomacy.
Negotiate, he said, but do so while keeping the sanctions in place, and with a clear sense of what the end-game needs to be: The complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.
Just as you can’t be partially pregnant, you can’t have part of a nuclear weapons program.
As he proved from Rouhani’s own comments in 2005, having fuel-cycle capability to enrich uranium at 3.5 percent means that a country possesses the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
“We all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed, but when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance. Three decades ago, president Ronald Reagan famously advised, ‘trust but verify.’ When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify,” he said.
More than any Israeli prime minister perhaps since Menachem Begin, Netanyahu unabashedly summons historical imagery in mustering his arguments on Israel’s behalf. He shies away neither from invoking the Bible to demonstrate the Jewish people’s connection to the Land, nor from the Holocaust or the Jews’ tragic past to explain what animates the country’s security perceptions.
Some criticize him for this, both inside and outside the country, saying he is living in the past and that it is time to move on. He forcefully disagrees.
“Now, I know that some in the international community think I’m exaggerating this threat,” he said. “The last century has taught us that when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds. That’s the central lesson of the 20th century. And we cannot forget it. The world may have forgotten this lesson. The Jewish people have not.”
Too many in the world underestimate the degree to which the Jewish past continues to animate Israel’s present and its hopes and fears for the future. Netanyahu sets them straight.
“In our time the biblical prophecies are being realized,” Netanyahu said in a very politically incorrect statement with which he concluded his speech. “As the prophet Amos said, ‘They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine. They shall till gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their soil never to be uprooted again.’” That’s one side of the coin.
The other was the story he told just prior to quoting from Amos about his grandfather who was beaten unconscious by a group of anti- Semitic hoodlums in 19th century Europe.
“They beat him senseless, they left him for dead, and before he passed out, covered in his own blood, he said to himself, ‘What a disgrace, what a disgrace. The descendants of the Maccabees lie in the mud powerless to defend themselves.’” It is no coincidence that Netanyahu told that story at the end of a speech devoted primarily to Iran. Though much of the world might think that history has marched on, and that this is melodramatic rhetoric, for Netanyahu Jewish history – both the glorious days of the prophets and the darkest days of the pogroms – is alive and real.
Those who want to understand what makes Netanyahu tick, and what he may or may not do, would do well to study carefully his latest UN address, the one without a gimmick, but with a simple, powerful message: Israel will act if it needs to, even if it must do so by itself.