Anyone listening to what’s being said about Iran by the White House and State Department lately could easily be convinced stopping the ayatollah’s nuclear program is one of Washington’s top priorities. But the public “disappointment” being expressed in Israel by senior members of the Netanyahu government tells a different story. While the New York Times was reporting a few days ago that American diplomats were going all out to persuade Japan, South Korea and even China to comply with American sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank as part of a prelude to a U.S.-led oil embargo of the Islamist state, the Israelis seem to be reading from a different playbook.
Though Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has registered support for Obama’s sanctions drive, his chief political deputy today contradicted him and denounced the administration’s cautious approach to pressuring Iran. And though the White House issued a statement summarizing a phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on Thursday that emphasized U.S.-support for Israeli security, reports out of Israel about the talk lead one to believe the focus of the chat was something else entirely: an American demand that Israel promise not to attack Iran on its own.
According to the Times, the U.S. is promising Asian nations which rely on Iranian oil that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that share Israel’s fears about Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons will make up for any shortages they experience if the embargo goes forward. But the same piece pointed out that America’s Arab allies could only provide the additional oil for a limited time. That caveat about the potential pitfalls of an embargo has led China to declare its absolute opposition to any further sanctions on Iran.
Netanyahu sought to encourage the drive for tougher sanctions when he said this week that “for the first time, I see Iran wobble” in the face of the restrictions placed on its commerce. Yet Deputy Moshe Ya’alon gave a far less sanguine evaluation of the American effort when he said Saturday the government was worried about the president’s willingness to take the crucial next step in the process: an oil embargo. He openly speculated that Obama’s fears about the political impact of a rise in gas prices was the reason why the administration was opposed to the congressional vote on sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank as well as to the implementation of the measure.
That’s where the different spins about this week’s Obama-Netanyahu call phone come into play. The White House statement read like a Democratic Party campaign appeal to American Jews when it said:
The President reiterated his unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, and the President and the Prime Minister promised to stay in touch in the coming weeks on these and other issues of mutual concern.
As JTA’s Ron Kampeas says in an attempt at translation, what Obama was really saying to Netanyahu was:
I, Barack Obama, am serious about squeezing Iran hard, which is what you have been seeking.
I, Barack Obama, have your back.
But Israeli sources are now saying the purpose of the phone call was to warn Netanyahu not to attack Iran. This would not be the first time Israel has received such a message. Netanyahu has heard this before, but the decision to re-emphasize American opposition to a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at the same time many in Washington were expressing unhappiness about the way Iranian nuclear scientists have been turning up dead is causing some in Jerusalem to think the U.S. is more worried about an Israeli pre-emptive attack on the existential threat they face than the prospect of an Iranian nuke.
If the American desire to head off an Israeli attack was based on the idea the use of force now would unravel a growing international coalition behind an Iran oil embargo, then such warnings might be justified. But if the U.S. is merely talking about an embargo in order to convince voters Obama is serious about Iran but will never be followed up by action, then Israel’s misgivings are more than justified.
The question here is one of trust. If one believes Obama means business about Iran, then his seeming caution about enforcing the bank ban and desire for Israel to take no military action while an embargo is being planned is entirely sensible. But if, as seems to be the case with many Israelis, you have no faith the president will ever take any concrete action with regard to Iran, than all the diplomatic activity and warnings to Israel are merely attempts to keep things calm during an election year. Unfortunately, after three years of “engagement” with Iran and feckless diplomatic outreach, it’s hard to argue that the skeptics are wrong.