Susan Rice made her first trip to Jerusalem as US National Security Advisor for a two-day effort to talk Israel’s leaders around into accepting the soon-to-be-signed US-Iranian nuclear accord as a good deal for their country.
Arriving with her Wednesday, May 7 was Wendy Sherman, US chief negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks with the six world powers, and a coterie of Obama administration officials.
Their meetings Wednesday and Thursday left the two sides as far apart as ever. Rice insisted on Israel accepting that Iran was already a nuclear threshold state and should be allowed to develop its civilian nuclear program, including uranium enrichment and more nuclear reactors, against a pledge by Tehran not to apply its nuclear capacity to military uses.
Netanyahu rejected this proposition. He insisted that the only way to keep Iran from driving toward a nuclear weapon was to prohibit uranium enrichment.
Rice came in person because top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, refused to receive Sherman each time she came in the past year to update them on the course of the six-power nuclear negotiations with Iran.
They found her to be patently pro-Iranian and did not believe her reports or those of other US officials involved – especially US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns – to accurately represent the decisions reached in the more substantive secret talks taking place quietly between Washington and Tehran.
Because of this mistrust, Netanyahu deputized his National Security Council Director to see Sherman each time she visited – first Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror and, after he quit, the incumbent Yoram Cohen, a former high-ranking Mossad official.
Enter Rice – Exit Kerry
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Jerusalem say the Rice-Netanyahu talks were worth watching for more than the Iran issue.
Rice steps in shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry stepped back from the peace process he actively promoted between Israel and the Palestinians. Since it ran aground, he has given up his frequent trips to the region.
Despite denials, Kerry has also been dismantling the 200-person negotiating team run by Martin Indyk, who has folded his tent as senior US peace envoy and returns to the Brookings Institute.
Netanyahu and Rice had one fundamental opinion in common: They were against the format Kerry designed for the peace talks and were skeptical of it producing a positive outcome.
But this may be just about the only area of agreement between them. Rice holds Netanyahu responsible for the talks’ predictable failure, blaming him for refusing to freeze settlement construction, budge on Jerusalem, or accept a return to the 1967 borders.
Sending Rice to liaise with Netanyahu on Iran was a strong signal from President Barack Obama: Rice is now at the steering wheel when it comes to Iran, and it won’t be an easy ride.
Netanyahu vows not to allow Iran to reach the nuclear threshold
In the article: “Iran on the Nuclear Threshold – Three Experts: The Nuclear Deal is no Bar to Iran Attaining an Atom Bomb,” DEBKA Weekly 633 of May 2 cited the conclusion shared by three nuclear intelligence experts: Robert Einhorn, a top Obama administration official on the Iran desk, Maj. Gen. (res) Amidror, and Maj. Gen. (res) Amos Yadlin, former IDF intelligence chief.
It is up to President Obama, they said, to present Tehran with a list of conditions and demands that will preclude its attainment of nuclear threshold status.
The three experts published their conclusions after they knew the US president had no intention of putting those demands to Tehran. In fact, the conditions he had formulated amounted to coming to terms with Iran reaching the nuclear threshold, requiring only that Tehran pledge never to actually build a bomb.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 28, Netanyahu reiterated his vow never to permit Iran to become a nuclear threshold power.
“The people of Israel stand strong. Faced with an existential threat, our situation today is entirely different than it was during the Holocaust. . . . Today, we have a sovereign Jewish state. Unlike during the Holocaust, when the Jewish people were like a wind-tossed leaf and utterly defenseless, we now own great power to defend ourselves. It is ready to undertake any mission."
How will Netanyahu handle a nuclear threshold Iran?
So a week before Rice arrived, the prime minister offered rhetoric to confute the Obama administration’s key contention that Iran had already attained nuclear threshold status and so everyone must now focus on preventing whoever is in power in Tehran from crossing that threshold and going all the way to a nuclear weapon.
While the Israeli prime minister found this premise totally unacceptable, it is hard to assess how he will react. While suggesting he is prepared for military action, Netanyahu has a credibility problem.
On February 3, 2013, Amos Yadlin said Iran could potentially build a nuclear bomb within four to six months and overtake the “red line” drawn by Netanyahu by the summer of that year. He added that Iran already possessed all the components for building the bomb.
Asked for an estimated timeline for Iran’s “breakthrough capabilities” – the time between a decision to build a nuclear bomb and the moment it reaches Iran’s possession – Yadlin replied: “Today the breakthrough capability is between four and six months.”
Judging by the criteria set by Netanyahu, Iran has been standing on the nuclear threshold for a year.
So why has he held back from a military strike until now?
He may have told his confidants that he felt constrained from resorting to military action so long as the Six World Powers were in negotiation with Iran for a diplomatic solution of the nuclear controversy. If that track petered out with no deal, then Israel would feel free to go ahead and count on the US joining in.
But many seasoned observers in the US and Israel suspect Netanyahu may be using this as a pretext to duck away from the issue. He must know as well as anyone that Barack Obama is hardly likely to give the green light for military action against Iran in any circumstances.
Anyway, there is no sign of any US military deployments in the Middle East neighborhood that might indicate preparations for such a military strike.