It is hard to believe that the White House was caught by surprise over House leader John Boehner’s unusual invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Feb. 11. After all, prior arrangements must have kept the Israeli embassy in Washington busy for weeks in a city, whose life blood is kept flowing by the mining and trading of information and secrets about friends and rivals alike.
All the same, it suited the four parties involved in this extraordinary event – Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the White House and Netanyahu – to pretend they were taken aback on Wednesday, Jan. 21 by the Speaker’s announcement of the prime minister’s coming address on "the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.”
He accused President Barack Obama of "papering over" these threats over in his State of the Union speech a few hours earlier.
The White House said the invitation breached "typical protocol" but the administration would reserve judgment until they heard from Netanyahu about his plans.
The assumed air of astonishment greeting the invitation added an element of drama to the event. It also had the effect of further polarizing the camps for and against the Obama administration’s insistence on banking solely on diplomacy for containing Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama and Netanyahu, who could never stand each other, have been at loggerheads for most of the six years of the former’s presidency over what is widely seen as the dead-end US Middle East policies he pursued in most major arenas such as Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the futile US air strikes against marching Islamist State soldiers, the unending Syrian conflict and the Palestinian issue.
The showdown building up for years between them may now be at hand. It will catch Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry fully engaged in a desperate pursuit of a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the Six-World-Powers group. This deal could then be presented as an unquestioned success of Obama’s Middle East policies – indeed the only one.
Together with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif, US officials have roughed out a draft accord. But most American nuclear experts and Israel’s top political and military leaders view this paper as a bad agreement, because it would leave Tehran with the freedom and resources to jump back from low-grade enrichment to full-dress production of a nuclear bomb and missiles when international and economic circumstances were more convenient.
But Obama and Kerry are counting on the ayatollahs holding their horses until the end of 2016, when the US administration changes hands. The Iranian nuclear deal’s inevitable breakdown would then land squarely on the shoulders of the next president and secretary of state taking over in Washington, while Obama would have formally honored his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Khamenei between two compulsions
But this plan faces an outsize impediment: Rouhani and Zarif are holding back from putting pen to paper because of the strong objections posed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards military chiefs.
Earlier this month, the issue reached boiling point in Tehran, debkafile’s Iranian sources report: The Guards threatened to unseat Khamenei by a military coup if he let Rouhani and Zarif sign the draft into a comprehensive, binding nuclear accord.
Khamenei, never lost for a devious maneuver, began weaving between the two compulsions – American demands for more concessions to finalize the deal and demands by hardliners at home not to give way. The move he made was to throw a bone in the form of an offer to cut down on the number of centrifuges used in uranium enrichment.
Obama and Kerry hailed this as a breakthrough toward a deal, although the experts dismissed it as meaningless.
Obama propositions Netanyahu
On this basis, Obama phoned Netanyahu Monday night, Jan. 13, to ask him for Israel’s support for the evolving comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran.
In return, he offered closer US cooperation in various areas of interest to Israel, such as the Palestinian issue, if the prime minister would withhold or cool his support for US Senate sanctions legislation:
The Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez seek to enact new sanctions on Iran if nuclear negotiations fail to meet their June 30 deadline for an accord.
Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — supported by Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain — is pushing for legislation which does not contain sanctions but would require a Senate vote on any pact that is agreed upon in Geneva.
Netanyahu rejected Obama’s proposition.
The US President was therefore adamant in his State of the Union references to the Iranian nuclear issue: “New sanctions on Iran would all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, heightening the prospects of war.” He said.: “Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies – including Israel – while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”
Obama did not elaborate on the parties who would take part in this hypothetical conflict, or explain why he limited himself to only two extreme scenarios – either a deal with Iran or tighter sanctions that would precipitate war.
Israel takes direct aim at Iran
It was no accident that two days before this speech, Obama had his answer from Israel. Sunday, Jan. 19, Israeli Air Force drones struck an Iranian-Hizballah military convoy near the Syrian Golan town of Quneitra. Six Iranian officers were killed, led by Gen. Mohamad Ali Allah Dadi, as well as the same number of high-ranking Hizballah operatives.
This was a dual threat: Israel would not stand by if Iranian and Hizballah forces moved into the Syrian Golan right up against its frontier. But in the wider context, Binyamin Netanyahu was signaling Obama in Washington and Khamenei in Tehran, that he no longer had any qualms about striking Iranian military targets if the two rulers failed to forge a workable, credible accord for keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.
The Israeli action added military muscle to the US Senate legislation on Iran – in the face of Obama’s reluctance to embrace tactics he believes would be disincentives for Khamenei to play ball on the ongoing multilateral nuclear diplomatic track in Geneva.
It also explains why John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress on Feb. 11.
However, until then, Iran, Hizballah, Syria and even Israel may not stand idle. And the Obama administration may also decide to round up its assets in a bid to spoil the prime minister’s run for re-election on March 17.