Veteran foreign policy pundit Leslie Gelb taps into an uncomfortable truth today when he writes in the Daily Beast about the unspoken agendas at play in the debate about how to stop a nuclear Iran. As Gelb puts it, both the Obama administration and the Islamist regime in Iran are employing a common tactic as well as a shared goal in their diplomatic maneuverings in the dispute about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Both are doing their best to pretend there is a serious chance for substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue. And both are doing so because their priority is not so much to actually resolve the issue but to prevent Israel from attacking Iran. Given that President Obama has been escalating his rhetoric about his determination to stop Iran’s plans, this is a shocking charge, since it casts everything Washington is saying on the subject in a cynical light. The problem though is Gelb is almost certainly right.
Gelb stipulates that the common agenda between Washington and Tehran does not mean they are acting in concert. The lines of communication between the two governments are so tenuous that such collaboration would be impossible even if suspicion between them were not so intense. But the priority for both is to be able to postpone any resolution of the issue. Obama’s hope is that by holding out the prospect sanctions will bring Tehran to heel, he can exert sufficient leverage on Israel in order to prevent them from attacking Iran. Such an attack would unleash a host of unforeseen circumstances that might upset his re-election plans. Similarly, the ayatollahs would like to give just enough room for talks about talks in order to play for more time to continue developing their weapon plans. Yet, because it is painfully obvious sanctions will not work and the only point of negotiations would be to allow Iran to run out the clock on their nuclear timetable, the push to put off any attack appears to be tantamount to a concession that the West and Israel will have to live with a nuclear Iran.
An attack on Iran by Israel would be a perilous undertaking, so it is not surprising Israel’s government has not made up its mind about making such a decision. However, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak understand that even if the West undertakes a complete oil embargo of Iran sometime later this year that would not guarantee Tehran would wave the white flag on its nuclear plans. They also know the longer they wait the chances for a successful strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will diminish.
But the biggest factor influencing their decision will be their level of trust in President Obama’s promises on Iran. The administration has done little to inspire confidence in their sanctions plan due to the reluctance with which they have pursued the project. The Israelis know Obama’s default position will always be a preference for negotiations even if talks with Iran are not merely doomed to failure but will actually serve the Islamist regime’s purpose of delaying action.
Even more worrisome is that the administration’s determination to squelch unilateral action by Israel seems to be greater than its alarm about Iran. Hence, the multiple statements by American defense and military figures seeking to throw cold water on the idea of an attack on Iran may have had the opposite effect on Israel than Obama intended. Rather than convince them to listen to the Americans’ advice and rely on their diplomatic tactics to stop Iran, they may have instead persuaded Netanyahu and Barak that Obama has no intention of ever taking action. While Obama must continue to insist an Iranian nuke is a non-starter while he is running for re-election, the Israelis understand the White House may be singing a far different tune next January once Obama’s lease on the premises is extended for another four years.
Like Gelb, the Israelis may well believe Obama’s show of concern about Iran and his notion that sanctions and diplomacy will avert that nuclear threat is mere playacting whose only purpose is to put them off. The question facing Netanyahu and Barak is whether they are prepared to play along with Obama while hoping a delay will not prove fatal to their country’s security.