“If anyone messes with Israel, America will be there.” This was the main message US President Barack Obama had for Israel in his New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman Monday, April 6. He was trying to fend off the constant stream of criticism coming from Israel, as well as Washington and the Gulf, of the nuclear framework deal the US-led group of world powers shaped with Iran in Lausanne last week.
On his clash with the Israeli prime minister over diplomacy with Iran, Obama offered a conciliatory note: This deal is “our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“I respect Mr. Netanyahu’s security argument and agree that Israelis have every right to be concerned about Iran,” a country that has threatened “to destroy Israel, that has denied the Holocaust, that has expressed venomous anti-Semitic ideas.”
He went on to say, “I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch, or as a consequence of work that I had done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable,” he said.
“But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”
Those words from the US president were certainly welcomed in Jerusalem, but they failed to address the deep concerns besetting Israel and the region over Iran’s rising belligerence, which has drawn encouragement from Obama’s policies:
1. The US president is focusing too narrowly on the nuclear dimension of the Iranian threat, when Tehran is already in the throes of an aggressive drive for regional expansion by conventional military means. It is actively stirring up civil strife and using subversion and terror to disrupt its neighbors.
Obama talks about Israel’s security concerns in the future tense in potential terms, when already an Iranian noose is tightening around its borders. He must have been apprised by his own intelligence advisers about the tasks Tehran has awarded its proxies, the Lebanese Hizballah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for turning the heat on the Jewish state – else why has Tehran raised Hizballah’s rocket-firing capacity against Israel to 1,000-1,500 rockets per day? And why send Hamas tens of millions of dollars for rebuilding the terror tunnels Israel destroyed in the Gaza Strip last summer and replenish its rocket arsenal?
Israel does not have the luxury of standing by until a foreign power, however friendly, “has its back.” Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces have made their own preparations for the worst-case scenario. But they also ask: Is it right for Israel to be put in this position so that President Obama can claim what he calls “a historic agreement?”
2. The list of governments skeptical of the value of the nuclear “framework” or “solutions” – depending on which of the Washington or Tehran versions they accept – does not end with Netanyahu. The day before it ran the Obama interview, The New York Times headed a front page story with the caption” Arab allies cry betrayal.”
Saudi King Salman has clearly decided to brush off White House attempts to sell its nuclear deal with Iran or wait for Obama to catch up with events in the region. He is forging ahead in the defense of what he considers the oil kingdom’s interests. His first step was to go ahead, without consulting with Washington, with military intervention in Yemen to stall the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
It is worth noting here that even Netanyahu, in his most heated diatribes against the US president’s policies, never used the term “betrayal.”
3. Obama and his advisers are fond of declaring that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would not delay its program more than a couple of years. For one thing, that theory has never been proved: Iran could be held back from the nuclear threshold by four or, for that matter, six years. Who’s to say? By then, Obama would have long been gone and also, by then, the ayatollahs – if they still ruled Iran – might have had a change of heart and decide to drop the current regime’s nuclear bomb aspirations.
All these propositions are equally speculative.
Still more short-sighted is the US president’s determination that the talks with Iran are a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.”
Even if the issue is resolved to the US president’s satisfaction by June 30, which most informed opinion doubts, it will still loom large on the tables of King Salman, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh el-Sisi, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
4. There is also a question of credibility. Whereas Obama now questions the value of tougher sanctions for deterring Iran from violating any nuclear deals, such as are envisaged Congress, just a year ago he was all in favor of these penalties for bringing Tehran to the negotiating table.
5. In his long interview to The New York Times, the president made no mention of the contrasting versions of the Lausanne process produced by Washington and Tehran– as debkafile was the first to disclose in detail on Saturday, April 4.
So which of the two is the correct one? Or were the two different narratives deliberately cooked up between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif as a selling device for their respective home audiences.
6. Getting to the bottom of the real deal concluded in Lausanne will be further complicated by the secret annexes which were appended and never intended to see the light of day. Middle East rulers can’t be expected to take on faith a deal contracted by outside powers with their neighbor, that includes secret clauses to which they are not privy.
7. Nothing is said in either the US or Iranian version about Tehran’s long-range ballistic missiles or the “research and development” work performed to outfit them for carrying nuclear warheads. Iran doesn’t need these missiles to attack Israel, but they would pose a threat to America.
The Obama interview and reiterated pledge to Israel’s security followed Netanyahu’s latest broadside.
Saying he sees better options than “this bad deal or war,” the prime minister said to CNN Sunday:
"I think there's a third alternative, and that is standing firm, ratcheting up the pressure until you get a better deal.” As it stands now, said the prime minister, "It does not roll back Iran's nuclear program. It keeps a vast nuclear infrastructure in place. Not a single centrifuge is destroyed. Not a single nuclear facility is shut down, including the underground facilities that they built illicitly. Thousands of centrifuges will keep spinning, enriching uranium. That's a very bad deal.”
Netanyahu said Iran is a country of "congenital cheating" and that it can't be trusted to abide by the terms of the deal.