Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday March 3rd about two major concerns – Iranian nuclear ambitions and radical supremist Islamism. I will treat the first issue here.
“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” President Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address on January 20 2009 at the US Capitol. This is where it all started. He was signaling that we would be willing to negotiate with and possibly make concessions to unfriendly nations. Innocent enough, absent knowledge of how good a negotiator our newly minted president is. We knew that our adversaries play hardball and are often mendacious.
It got off to a fast start. On March 6 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a “Reset” button to signify a new start to US-Russian relations. It turned out that the Clinton State Department was devoid of Russian-speakers, and the button was labeled with a Russian word that means “Overcharge”, not “Reset.” The whole exercise has gone as astray as that gesture.
The discord between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu goes back to 2012, when the Obama administration began secret contacts with Iran through Oman. The Israelis were angry that they weren’t informed and insulted that the US would think the Israelis wouldn’t find out through their intelligence channels. The secret meetings weren’t the problem – such discussions always begin thusly – it was the ignoring of Israeli vulnerabilities to such an agreement. Iranian President Ahmadinejad once famously stated that it would take “many, many Israeli nuclear bombs to seriously damage Iran, but one well-placed nuclear bomb would destroy Israel.” And he was right – a 150KT warhead on the Jerusalem side of Tel Aviv would obliterate Israeli leadership and much of its industry. Israel sees an Iran with nuclear weapons as a threat to its very existence, and Iran has expressed, many times, a desire to fulfill that nightmare.
From Clinton through Bush the Younger to the present day, the official American position has been that Iran will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, and that has calmed Israeli fears somewhat. America has always been a valued and trustworthy guarantor of Israeli security. But Prime Minister Netanyahu feels the ground shifting beneath his feet under President Obama’s American leadership.
“[Nuclear weapon] Breakout time is an equation with four variables,” says Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, “a package consisting of the number and performance levels of the permitted centrifuges, the extent of dismantlement of non-permitted centrifuges and the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium.” So, to “not permit” the acquisition of nuclear weapons, one would just have to zero-out one or more of those variables – the simplest being to ban Iran from maintaining centrifuge arrays, to ban Iran from enriching uranium at all. This has always been the Israeli position.
The first round of talks ended with the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), agreeing that Iran could keep “a few hundred centrifuges,” thereby legitimizing Iran’s “right” to enrich. Now, to stop the acquisition of weapons grade materials, the world is faced with the much harder task of ensuring a low number of centrifuges and verifying the enrichment level at the end of the cascade. With fewer than a thousand centrifuges, it would take years to produce enough weapons grade U235 to produce a warhead, and the last steps of enrichment would have to be done without inspectors finding out. The other large concern in this area is the heavy water reactor at Arak. Regardless of how you use the reactor’s primary product – high pressure steam – the way in which a heavy water reactor works produces plutonium as a waste product in the spent fuel rods. It’s what the industry calls a “breeder” reactor. The only practical use for plutonium is bomb cores. Any agreement serious about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would insist that the breeder at Arak be leveled. The JPOA leaves it untouched.
Obama has repeatedly stated, most recently in his January 2015 State of the Union address, that the interim agreement “halted” the Iranian nuclear program. Or, as he put it in his March 2014 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the “logic” of the JPOA was “to freeze the situation for a certain period of time to allow the negotiators to work.” But the agreement froze only American actions; it hardly stopped the Iranians from moving forward. This has further troubled Mr Netanyahu – the Americans now obviously have no intention of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability, only to delay it. This confirms Israel’s belief that the Obama administration has been duplicitous, arguing against Israeli strikes because “it wouldn’t prevent an Iranian bomb, only delay it.”
According to those privy to the negotiations, the US wants to tie Iran’s hands for a decade until a new generation takes power there. So, without public notice or Congressional consultation, the Obama administration has broken with long-standing American policy of denying Iran nuclear weapons capability, and now wants to limit and contain it. This is not a detail, it’s a paradigm shift. He’s betting Israel’s existence on a hunch that the next Iranian administration will be all better. Such naïveté and chutzpa terrifies Mr Netanyahu. And delights the mullahs.
Ronald Reagan entered office with the idea to end the Cold War – he could see that the Soviets weren’t going to win the war of technology, and that we could make that obvious to Soviet war planners. The Strategic Defense Initiative did the trick. Likewise, Barack Obama entered office assuming that Iran and the United States are natural allies with common interests. He sees “a grand bargain with Iran” as the central goal of his foreign policy. Yes, that’s speculation, but it explains an awful lot of an otherwise inexplicable foreign policy.
It explains why he would secretly shred American assurances that we would not permit a nuclear Iran in favor of, as is currently being discussed, allowing them between 3,000 and 4,000 centrifuges and simply “de-plumbing” the rest (rather then destroying them). An overriding interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region and ameliorating an existential threat to Israel has been scrapped in favor of “a grand bargain” with Iran. The adage of “a bad bargain is worse than no bargain” has been ignored.
This would explain the abandonment of Iraq and Syria to Iranian influence. It would explain his apparent willingness to allow Iran to carry the effort of defeating ISIS (thereby leaving Iran as the dominant military force between Turkey and Saudi Arabia). It explains our yielding the chemical warfare “red line” matter to Russia and our near pathological reluctance to “offend” them over Ukraine (we need their cooperation in dealing with Iran). As I said, it takes a lot of the “whack-a-mole” feeling out of the Obama foreign policy.
If my speculation is wrong, then we are back to a naïve academic swimming with sharks. Back to whack-a-mole.
 David Ignatius, Why Netanyahu broke publicly with Obama over Iran, in Washington Post, February 20 2015.
 Michael Doran Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy, in Mosaic Magazine, February 2 2015.
 See Ignatius, February 20 2015.
 It shouldn’t be forgotten that Russia’s only Mediterranean port is in Syria, and that depends on the Assad regime’s largesse.