Commentary Magazine


Sanctions Fight Is an Example of Why Bibi Doesn’t Trust Barack

It’s no secret that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu don’t trust each other. Personality conflicts are slightly less troubling–they can dislike each other and still respect and even trust each other. But trust is seemingly nowhere to be found in the distressed relationship between the two leaders. (We got another reminder of this at the Saban Forum, when Ehud Olmert restated on the record comments that Rahm Emanuel, once Obama’s chief of staff, had made at the forum off the record. The comments were tinged with anger and resentment at Netanyahu.)

And that’s why the issue of Iran will always be the greatest source of friction between the two. Arguments over settlements are mostly background noise; Iran represents an existential threat to Israel, a major security threat to Europe, an ongoing security threat to the United States, and is in pursuit of what would be perhaps the bitterest of Obama administration failures–a nuclear-armed Iran setting off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Obama has repeatedly said he won’t let this happen, so why doesn’t Netanyahu trust him? One answer is something that cropped up again almost unnoticed just before the weekend: Obama’s consistent opposition to tough Iran sanctions. The president has repeatedly tried to kill sanctions, then delay them, then water them down, then as a last resort attach so many waivers as to leave the sanctions looking like Swiss cheese.

Of course, the Obama administration has its own justifications for its consistent and adamant opposition to tough sanctions. Here, according to Josh Rogin, is what the White House doesn’t like about the latest round of sanctions:

One of the White House’s chief concerns is that Congress is not providing the administration enough waivers, which would give the United States the option of negating or postponing applications of the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

The White House also said that secondary sanctions should apply only to those Iranian persons and entities that are guilty of aiding Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The new legislative language would designate entire categories of Iranian government entities to be sanctioned — whether or not each person or entity is directly involved in such activities.

The new sanctions too broadly punish companies that supply materials, such as certain metals, that could be used in Iran’s nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs, the White House worries. The bill allows those materials to be sold to Iranian entities that intend to use them for non-military or nuclear-related purposes, but the administration said that the ambiguity in that part of the legislation will make it hard to implement.

Finally, the White House doesn’t want to implement the part of the new legislation that would require reports to Congress on the thousands of boats that dock at Iranian ports and the dozens of Iranian planes that make stops at airports around the world. Those reporting requirements “will impose serious time burdens on the Intelligence Community and sanctions officers,” the White House said in the e-mail.

Too few loopholes and escape routes; too much accountability and work for the White House.

The reason Obama and Netanyahu are often at odds over Iran’s nuclear program is that Netanyahu sees the gap separating Obama’s words and his actions, and he doesn’t like it. Netanyahu also wants assurances on military action, if that’s what it takes, if and when the sanctions fail. Obama’s blasé approach to sanctions indicates the two countries may be working with two different time frames on when Iran would reach what the Israelis refer to as the point of no return.

From the Israeli perspective, an optimist would suggest that Obama isn’t too concerned with sanctions stopping the Iranian program because he is ready and willing to take the requisite action to attempt to crush the program, and doesn’t see the point in alienating the Europeans or other trading partners with onerous sanctions if a.) they are not going to stop the program anyway, and b.) Obama will.

But Obama has obviously not been particularly convincing on this score, as far as Netanyahu is concerned. Obama may be playing his cards close to his chest, but Netanyahu won’t be reassured without seeing his hand. And the pessimist sees something else entirely: an American president who makes lots of campaign promises he doesn’t keep who doesn’t seem to possess any sense of urgency on a matter that, to Israelis, is tied to the very survival of the Jewish state.

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