Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.
No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.
But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.
President Obama reaffirmed his pledge never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon today in Israel while also urging his listeners to give diplomacy more time to succeed. But the one person in the world whom the president needs to persuade to listen to reason on the issue apparently has other ideas.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a message aired on Iranian TV that if the West attacked Iran, it would violently retaliate against Israel:
“The heads of the Zionist regime should know that in case of any mistake against Iran, Iran will level down Tel Aviv and Haifa,” Khamenei said in a message from the city of Mashhad aired on state television to mark the Nowrouz festival, the start of the Iranian new year.
Iran’s threats can be dismissed as mere boasting intended for a domestic audience. The Iranians aren’t believed to have the capability of attacking Israel in this manner, let alone leveling cities. But the willingness of the ayatollah to speak openly about an act that could only be described as genocide only makes the argument for the use of force against Iran’s nuclear facilities all the more defensible, if not necessary.
A report published today in Britain’s Sunday Times says that the ability of Iran to move much of its nuclear program into hardened mountainside bunkers has already rendered it invulnerable to conventional air attack. This account relies on western intelligence and defense sources that may be intent on deterring an Israeli attempt to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But given the obvious difficulties involved in any such attack, especially with the more slender military resources available to Israel than the United States, it could be correct. According to the story, that leaves Israel with only two options: use its own nukes to destroy the site or deploy ground troops to Iran. Needless to say, neither is a realistic option for Israel.
While skepticism about any such story is in order, it does raise a couple of important questions. One is whether the reason for these Western intelligence leaks is behind an effort not so much to stop an Israeli strike as to prevent action by the West should President Obama need to use force to make good on his promise not to allow an Iranian nuke on his watch. It also places speculation about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged order in 2010 to raise its alert level in preparation for a possible attack on Iran is a slightly different context. While that action has been depicted as reckless by some and even interpreted as a cynical attempt to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel or the West, if it is now too late to stop Iran perhaps Netanyahu’s concern was well placed. Just as important, it could be that the complacence exhibited by those in the security establishment in Israel that opposed any thought of action was far from wise. The same could be said about the conviction that still prevails in Washington that takes it as a given that there is still plenty of time to wait until decisions have to be made about the threat.
Many in the West interpreted the unrest in the streets of Tehran last week in the wake of the collapse the rial as a sign that the Islamist regime was shaken by the sanctions that have been imposed on its economy. The assumption is that the ayatollahs are chastened by the hardships that their people labor under and that it won’t be too long before they are ready to return to the negotiating table and make the concessions needed to craft a deal that will end the standoff over their drive for nuclear capability. But the Iranians and their terrorist auxiliaries in Lebanon (some of who are currently deployed in Syria defending their ally Bashar Assad) have other ideas about the outcome of this confrontation.
Iran’s leadership cannot be completely sanguine about the willingness of their people to go on putting up with Islamist extremism at home and endless conflict abroad. But they also have no intention of being influenced by domestic public opinion or intimidated by Western leaders who are still foolish enough to believe that diplomacy can solve the problem. To the contrary, they believe that it is Israel and the West that can be intimidated and it is in that context that we should interpret the puzzling appearance of the Hezbollah drone aircraft that was shot down over the Negev desert this weekend. Instead of the Iranians receiving the memo the West wants them to read about the futility of further resistance to demands to end the enrichment of uranium that will make a nuclear bomb possible, they have just sent their own message. The drone is more than an indication that Iran will seek to retaliate against any strike on their nuclear facilities with one on Israel. It’s also a sign that the terrorists in Lebanon can strike anywhere in Europe as well as the Middle East. Rather than this drone being a reason for Israel and the West to stand down from a policy of pressing Iran to give up their nuclear dream, it is a warning that ought to reinforce the imperative need to stop them.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today centered on trying to convince the world that a red line needs to be drawn to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. To do that he literally drew a red line on a cartoon picture of a bomb. To the chattering classes following the speech on Twitter, this was a joke. But the reaction to the simplistic bomb diagram illustrated Netanyahu’s problem perfectly. Iran is getting closer every day to achieving its nuclear ambition. In response, world leaders, like President Obama, talk about the need to stop Tehran and even pledge not to contemplate containment of a nuclear Iran. But unless they make it as clear as that red marker line on the diagram, they will fail.
That is the key issue. Netanyahu thanked President Obama for his promises on Iran, but pointed out that without a red line that will make it clear that Iran will not be allowed to accumulate enough uranium to build a bomb, such pledges are meaningless. The Israeli’s frustration stems from the fact that an international consensus about an Iranian bomb being a bad thing won’t stop it from happening. The complacent attitude that always thinks failed diplomacy and ineffective sanctions can be given more time is a guarantee of such failure.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s annual United Nations freak show has commenced, and the press is eating it up. The Iranian leader held forth for a group of journalists this morning and didn’t disappoint. He claimed Jews have no historical roots in the Middle East and said Israel would disappear. He attacked Western freedom of speech and alluded to his past practice of denying the Holocaust while bragging that Western opposition to its nuclear program wouldn’t intimidate Iran. He will, no doubt, repeat and embellish these insults and threats as he has in the past when he addresses the General Assembly on Wednesday, which just happens to be Yom Kippur. But the problem with Ahmadinejad is not just that he says terrible things and revels in the attention he gets like any other foreign enfant terrible who shows up to speak at the circus-like atmosphere of the world body’s annual jamboree. It’s that not enough people take him seriously.
It’s true that, as Seth wrote earlier, Ahmadinejad has been subjected to probing questions by some of our top foreign policy writers such as David Ignatius, but even those efforts are more focused on the chimera of outreach to Iran than on a clear-headed exploration of the nature of the regime. But on the whole, the main reaction to him is to act as if what he says is meaningless. Granted, it’s not easy for the sophisticated national press corps and the rest of our chattering classes to take seriously a person who looks, sounds and acts as if he is performing a satire on tyrants in the style of Charlie Chaplin or Sacha Baron Cohen. Indeed, the nastier and the crazier he gets, the harder it is for the journalistic world to treat him as anything other than a clown act. But he isn’t. His threats and insults must be listened to and taken seriously. The fact that they are not is no small measure why it has been so difficult to get much of the American foreign policy establishment, as well as the Obama administration, to treat Iran’s nuclear threat as something that requires urgent action rather than just more talk.
In separate interviews broadcast last night on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” President Obama and Mitt Romney aired their differences on a host of issues. While much of the exchange consisted of the usual talking points on the economy from the two candidates, perhaps the most significant statement uttered (the complete transcript can be read here) was when the president was asked about the calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to state specific red lines about Iran’s nuclear threat that would trigger U.S. action:
When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there. Now I feel an obligation, not pressure but obligation, to make sure that we’re in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues because it affects them deeply. They’re one of our closest allies in the region. And we’ve got an Iranian regime that has said horrible things that directly threaten Israel’s existence.
While the second half of that answer sought to paper over the differences between his administration and Israel, there can be no doubt about the import of the first half. It was not only a clear statement from the president that he will not allow himself to be influenced by Netanyahu’s sense of urgency about Iran, but a not-so-subtle attempt to play the “Israel Lobby” card by asserting that he would do “what’s right for the American people.” The implication of this is that what’s good for America is not what’s good for Israel and if Netanyahu doesn’t like it, he can lump it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to cajole or shame the United States into adopting a more realistic strategy on Iran have earned him some poor reviews in the American press. The very idea that an Israeli leader should publicly seek to influence U.S. policy strikes some people as shocking. That he would do so in the midst of an election campaign has opened him up to criticism that he is seeking to influence the choice of the voters. The election tampering charge isn’t very plausible. Netanyahu knows America well enough to understand that any perceived intervention on his part would be a disaster and wouldn’t help Mitt Romney beat Obama. If anything, as Jeffrey Goldberg, a supporter of the president and critic of the prime minister, wrote on Friday in the Atlantic, Netanyahu seems sure Obama will beat Romney so he isn’t trying to change anyone’s vote so much as attempting to pressure the president into a policy shift.
But this argument isn’t so much about what will happen in November, as it is a not-so-subtle effort to silence a reasonable critique of American foreign policy by both Israelis and their American supporters. In doing so, some on the left are seeking not so much to bolster President Obama as they are to delegitimize the notion that the United States ought to be listening to Israel’s warnings about Iran in a manner highly reminiscent of the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped back a bit from the confrontational tone he had taken earlier this week when he characterized his phone call with President Obama on Tuesday night as a “good conversation.” But lest anyone construe that as the administration giving the Israeli the assurances about Iran that he was looking for, the White House dispatched a “senior administration official” to their favorite newspaper to spill the beans about how not “good” the talk was for the Jewish state.
According to the leak published in the New York Times, Obama did repeat his promise about not letting Iran produce a nuclear weapon. But over the course of what must have been a tense hour on the phone, it appears that the president stiffed Netanyahu on every aspect of the issue. He absolutely refused to set any red lines about Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material. Nor would he set any limits on the amount of time an already failed diplomatic track would be allowed to linger before action was taken.
How bad have things gotten between Israel and the United States? Yesterday’s nasty exchange between the two countries in which President Obama turned down a request for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu showed that the problem has now escalated from a simmering, longstanding argument about the peace process to a full-blown feud. The White House did some damage control and reportedly the two men spoke at length last night. But anyone who thinks that will resolve their differences hasn’t been paying attention to the unhealthy dynamic that has been festering since the two both came into office in early 2009.
The two have sniped and carped at each other for most of the past four years. But the decision of much of the mainstream media, including some journalists in Israel, to characterize this as being a personal dispute is a mistake. Though there’s no question that the two don’t like each other, what is at play here isn’t merely a brawl between two overachieving powerful men who like to have their own way and don’t care much for those who contradict them. Their quarrel is primarily about serious policy differences that represent a fundamental disagreement about the alliance between the two nations and Israel’s place in the world. Obama’s stubborn refusal to treat the nuclear peril from Iran as an existential threat that must be met expeditiously can’t be put down to personal antipathy. Nor is Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Obama’s lip service to the question as an adequate response a function of his surly temperament. Though the personality conflict has aggravated the squabble, it would exist and probably be just as dangerous even if the two were thoroughly compatible.
Earlier, John channeled the spirit of William Safire and gave us an imaginative and probably not inaccurate assessment of President Obama’s motivation for refusing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu later this month during the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. Given Obama’s personal antipathy for Netanyahu and his ardent desire to avoid any meeting that would place him under some obligation to strengthen his stand on Iran, the snub is hardly surprising. The intent, as with a number of previous stunts by the president aimed at the Israeli, was to embarrass Netanyahu as well as to stiff him on the one issue his country cares about: Iran.
The decision is particularly problematic because the assumption in the Israeli press had been that Obama would use a planned September 26 meeting with Netanyahu to not only reaffirm his commitment to stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The consensus was that it would also be the occasion for the enunciation of some “red lines” that would state with some degree of certainty just how far the diplomatic process would be allowed to go before Iran would be called to account by the United States. Instead, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that there will be no red lines, meaning that a policy predicated on the idea that diplomacy and sanctions to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear goal will be allowed to go on, perhaps indefinitely. Netanyahu doesn’t need to read Contentions to understand that in doing so Obama has just shown that he doesn’t believe the Israeli’s threats to attack Iran. Just as important, the president is also signaling that the U.S. has no intention of ever resorting to force even though everyone in Washington already knows that diplomacy has no chance of success.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is bubbling over with frustration at U.S. policy toward Iran. While President Obama has continued to reiterate his pledge not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, this concern was shown once again to be an empty boast by Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on Sunday that the United States was not “setting any deadlines” to make Iran stop enriching uranium. That was reinforced on Monday when State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “It is not useful to be parsing it, to be setting deadlines one way or the other, red lines.” Far from responding to Israeli requests for a firm statement of an intent to set some red lines beyond which Tehran dare not cross, Washington has sent a clear signal to Iran that the U.S. was content to sit back and watch events as they unfolded.
The subtext to this exchange is that the hints coming out of Jerusalem about a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran to forestall the nuclear threat may very well turn out to have been a bluff. The United States remains firmly focused on preventing any such attempt to resolve this problem and the Israeli PM knows that he would be risking a confrontation with his country’s main ally should it decide to strike on its own. Netanyahu is a cautious man and those who have been predicting all along that he would back down if President Obama remained obdurate may be right. If true, this would be a tactical triumph for the president but there shouldn’t be any doubt as to its ultimate meaning. In the absence of the sort of deadline that Clinton dismissed, time may soon run out on any chance for the West to stop Iran.
Speculation about whether Israel will decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to build, but the latest report out of Jerusalem confirms that the answer to the question is still to be found in Washington. The Times of Israel reports that Israel’s Channel 10 has quoted sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu that claim the chances of a strike on Iran are declining. What’s more, they say that if President Obama gives Netanyahu assurances that the United States has firm “red lines” that will trigger action against Iran, there will be no need for Israel to act on its own.
The two men are scheduled to meet later this month on September 27 while Netanyahu is in New York to address the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. But the question hanging over this meeting is whether the White House will interpret Netanyahu’s attitude as an opportunity to call his bluff or a challenge that requires the president to start taking the issue seriously.
As Seth wrote earlier today, Israeli distrust of President Obama’s intentions on Iran is the product of nearly four years of policies designed to create more distance between the two allies on this and other issues. But since the president wants to stop an Israeli attack on Iran (and worries that some pro-Israel voters will hold his inaction against him in November, the administration used its favorite media mouthpiece — the New York Times —to float a raft a proposals that are intended to calm Jerusalem and its overseas friends. But the problem with these ideas is that they are focused more on stopping Israel than Iran.
Today’s front-page story in the Times states that the administration is considering the following: Naval exercises in the Persian Gulf to intimidate the Iranians; efforts to clamp down on Iran’s still-booming sources of oil revenue despite the supposedly “crippling” sanctions belatedly imposed on the country by the West; more covert activities aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities; the construction of a radar facility in Qatar and a clear statement by the president as to the circumstances under which the United States will use force to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The last point is the one the Israelis have been begging Washington for but it is also apparently the one that the president is least interested in carrying out.
As for the other ideas, they have all been tried and failed. Under these circumstances, can anyone wonder why the Israelis fear they are on their own and the Iranians are confident they can defy the United States?
The release yesterday of a new report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency effectively vindicates everything Israel’s leaders have been saying in recent months. The report says Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges it could use to make the core of nuclear warheads at its underground bunker at Fordow. It has also effectively shut down the IAEA investigation of their work at Parchin, where the Islamist regime has been conducting work on nuclear weapons development.
Fordow is the “breakout” facility where it can convert any civilian nuclear activity into military applications safe from air attack. As even the New York Times admits today, far from the Obama administration’s strategy of using diplomacy and sanctions slowing down Iran’s progress, “if anything, the program is speeding up.” It goes on to point out:
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.
This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.
As I wrote yesterday, a lot was hanging on whether United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would decide to ignore the urging of President Obama and go to Iran for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. Doing so would make a mockery of the administration’s claim that they had successfully isolated the Islamist regime as part of a campaign to force it to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. But when faced with a choice of offending the Non-Aligned Movement and its Iranian host or President Obama and Israel, Secretary General Ban picked the lesser of two evils from his point of view and affirmed today that he was heading to Tehran.
There are those who will say with justice that nobody has cared about the Non-Aligned Movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall rendered this Third World strategy of playing the West against the former Soviet Union moot. However, Ban’s visit puts the icing on the cake for the ayatollah’s effort to show how the world is refusing to shun them the way other rogue regimes have been treated. That Ban would decide to go to Iran only a week after its leaders issued a new round of statements calling for the elimination of fellow UN member Israel is an outrage in itself. But by hosting the representatives of 120 countries with the head of the world body along with them, the Iranians have good reason to argue that this demonstrates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that she has successfully isolated Iran is a joke.
The Obama administration is still asserting that diplomacy and sanctions will halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons without the need for either Israel or the United States to resort to force. At the core of this argument is the assertion that the effort to squeeze Tehran led by Secretary of State Clinton has been largely successful with tough sanctions strangling Iran’s economy. But no one in Washington really believes that the P5+1 talks will ever be successfully revived and the methods by which the Iranians are getting around the loosely enforced sanctions are making a joke out of Clinton’s boast that her efforts would be “crippling.”
Far from being isolated, the Iranians are still enjoying the support of much of the world, something that will be made all too clear next week when the so-called Non-Aligned Movement convenes its annual meeting in Tehran. It’s bad enough that 120-member states of the group will send representatives to the gathering that will undermine any thought that the Islamist regime has no friends. But if United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon goes to the meeting too it will put a fork in the notion that the Iranians have much to worry about. That worries left-wing columnist Chemi Shalev, who writes in Haaretz that the symbolism of the UN chief arriving in the Iranian capital will be used by both Israeli and American critics of Obama’s feckless policy. He’s right.
The disagreement between Israel and the Obama administration over whether it’s time to acknowledge that diplomacy has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program is starting to make a lot of people nervous. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem to be interpreting the administration’s staunch refusal to abandon a diplomatic track that has already clearly failed as meaning that the president won’t make good on his promise to stop Iran from going nuclear. That has led to talk that Israel will strike Iran without U.S. assistance or permission and that it may do so even before the November presidential election.
The Americans are doing everything they can to persuade the Israelis to stand down but in the absence of trust in the president, mere words may not be enough. That’s why one of Obama’s leading Jewish supporters, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, believes it’s time for some symbolism. Goldberg writes today in Bloomberg that a long sought presidential visit to Israel before the election would do the trick. He’s right. If President Obama were to take time out from the campaign for a stop in Israel some time in the next few weeks, Netanyahu would have no choice but to postpone any attack plans. Though it is possible that Obama will listen to Goldberg, such a visit with less than 90 days before the election is a long shot. It is far more likely that the president will rely on his usual mode of communication with the Israelis: pressure and threats. But since that has never worked in the past, Obama’s supporters ought to be asking themselves what’s behind the president’s reluctance to act in a manner that might convince both Israelis and their Iranian foes that he isn’t fibbing about being prepared to act on the issue during his second term.
In his column at the Daily Beast today on the prospect of hostilities with Iran, Peter Beinart assumes his usual role: defender of Barack Obama against Israel and its supporters. In this case, it’s the chutzpah of Israel’s government to demand that the administration issue some clear red lines about how long it will wait before taking action against the Iranian nuclear threat that bothers him. Israel’s warning that it may have to act on its own is seen on the left as an attempt to force him to launch an unnecessary war. But Beinart’s complaint that we haven’t had a full-scale debate on stopping Iran is more than a bit disingenuous. Far from no one making a case for the use of force on Iran — which he compares unfavorably to the Bush administration’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq — the president has been doing that ever since he started running for president.
If there hasn’t been much contention about pressuring Iran it’s because it’s been one of those issues on which there’s been a clear consensus. Stopping an Islamist regime that hates the West and America and which routinely calls for Israel’s elimination while promoting anti-Semitism and subsidizing terrorism is not a controversial goal. Obama and the Democrats and Romney and the Republicans both agree on this. The only question is which of them is serious about it. Beinart’s call for debate before any promises are made to Israel is part of an effort to back the president’s desire to keep kicking the can down the road until after the November election. Rather than really wanting a debate about a feckless administration policy that has wasted four years on dead-end diplomacy and engagement with Iran and only belatedly enacted sanctions that it are being loosely enforced, what Obama cheerleaders like Beinart really want is to find a way to put on brake on the use of force. But his assertion that no one has made a case for stopping Iran being an “American interest” is simply untrue.