Israel and the United States agree on one thing, Iran must not develop a nuclear weapon. An Iranian Nuclear weapon, as the Obama administration sees it, would embolden Tehran’s subverting activities against its neighbors with impunity; ignite an arms race in the region to counterbalance Iran; and increase the threat of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of terrorist groups. In addition,
Israel sees a nuclear Iran as an “existential threat,” and certainly a threat to its own ability to act in the region with impunity. However, Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds on how to prevent the eventuality of an Iran with nuclear weapon capabilities. A little context is necessary to understanding these differences.
When Obama took office, he had inherited two wars in Muslim countries, and one of his goals as president has been reconciling the United States with Muslims and particularly in the Middle East—after the understandable deterioration that took place in the wake of the September 11 attacks. After assuming office, Obama started this initiative with his well-received speech in Cairo calling for improved relations in 2009.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Obama quickly sided with the people against the dictators, including long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak. And in May of 2011, he delivered a speech addressing the Middle East reaffirming the rights and democratic aspirations of the Arab people. At the end of 2011, Obama finally ended the war in Iraq pulling out the last of US troops and is winding down the war in Afghanistan.
Obama’s reconciliation with the Muslim world has largely been driven as a solution to reducing the threat of terrorism, which has worked so far, without a single successful terrorist attack since he assumed office. When it comes to Iran, Obama had also reached out four times to the Iranian people on their New Year holiday (Nowruz) calling for dialogue in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. With Obama’s Middle East doctrine in mind, it is very counter-intuitive for him to support any military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program without fully exhausting all other options. Military action against Iran would undo all the efforts that his administration has done with regards to reconciliation with the Muslim world and could spark a new wave of terrorist attacks against US interests after they have subsided—this includes attacks by Israel since they would be perceived as approved by the White House.
Furthermore, attacks would even be more consequential in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the American ally, the Shah, not only attained an Islamist character, but also a very anti-American stance. Therefore the US quickly sided with the Arab people during their revolutions to try and avoid a similar result. And despite recent Arab elections yielding Islamist majorities, relations between the newly elected Arab governments and the new Arab generation has ostensibly been on good terms or at least neutral with regards to the US
Therefore launching military strikes against yet another Muslim country, despite it being Shiite, could easily tip the neutral position that the post-Arab uprising governments have had into an anti-American one. In 2006 when Israel attacked Hezbollah, despite the group being Shiite, the majority of Arabs still supported them and that also transpired into an anti-American wave. This creates a dilemma for the Obama administration, one which the use of military action belies their reconciliatory policies towards the Middle East
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama believes there is still room for a diplomatic solution as he told Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday March 5th that “We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”
Israel on the other hand, does not believe that sanctions could deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and as Netanyahu, speaking to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee after meeting with Obama on Monday, said “Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.” Netanyahu believes that negotiation attempts by Iran are simply aimed to buy time to further develop their program.
A major difference between the two is where to draw the red line? The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, while Israel does not want Iran to develop the capability of developing the bomb. This means that the US and Israel have different timetables of when an attack against Iran is necessary. According to James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, when addressing the Senate Intelligence Committee in January said that Iran has not yet made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon but is “developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.” Therefore for the Obama administration, until there is clear evidence that Iran has made the decision to actually build the bomb, a military strike can wait. Perhaps the most important factor determining the difference of where to draw the red line is in military capabilities.
Netanyahu believes that there is a point where Israel can no longer attack Iranian nuclear facilities and causing severe damage to their nuclear program. This is especially in light of the discovery of the formerly secret Fordow plant near the Holy city of Qom—where the Iranians continue to transport parts of their nuclear program. The underground site is strategically built deep under the mountainside that would protect it from conventional airstrikes. Israeli Defense minister coined the phrase “zone of immunity” to refer to this point in which an Israeli airstrike would no longer be effective—and therefore they would have to strike Iran’s Nuclear facilities before Iran gets to that point. The US, however, with their superior military capabilities including bunker buster bombs, has a much longer timetable to which they can still inflict the minimum satisfactory damage to Iran’s nuclear program. Surprisingly, Obama also explicitly stated (the first US president to do so) that his policy will not be one of containment, but prevention—meaning if Iran does not stand down, he would be compelled to resort to military action. But Netanyahu does not want to leave his fate in the hands of the US as he emphasized when he stated in the Oval Office that “my supreme responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”
The final component in both administrations’ calculations is current American domestic politics. Netanyahu is well aware that if Israel was to attack Iran during an American presidential election season, it would force Obama’s hand into fully and unconditionally supporting Israel diplomatically, financially and possibly militarily if an all-out war ensued—even if Israel does so without Obama’s green light. This surely weighs in as a major incentive for an Israeli airstrike to take place before the November elections. But as Obama’s re-election campaign bid draws near, the most important issue for the American people has been the high unemployment rate and other economic related issues. With the economy on its way to making a full recovery, an Israeli attack on Iran would drastically drive up oil prices which could potentially reverse the recovery and therefore threaten Obama’s bid for re-election. Furthermore, if Israel strikes Iran, there also is the potential of Iran sponsoring terrorist attacks against American interests in and outside the US—another threat General Clapper warned the Senate Intelligence Committee about. A successful terrorist attack in the U.S would end Obama’s perfect record on combatting terrorism—something his republican opponents would exploit to the fullest.
Netanyahu’s recent visit to the US underscores many of the differences outlined here. Obama emphasized that there is still plenty of room for a diplomatic breakthrough, especially with the EU ban on importing oil from Iran—which accounts to about 18 percent of Iran’s oil exports—set to take effect this July. Furthermore, unprecedented sanctions by the US including sanctions on Iran’s central bank continue to cripple Iran’s economy—with steadily increasing inflation coupled with Iran’s currency in free fall. But Netanyahu did leave the US with a message at the White House when he stated that “Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions.” And Obama did acknowledge this right by emphasizing (in the speech he delivered at AIPAC one day before meeting with Netanyahu) “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.” This can be interpreted as a signal by Obama that the White House at the end of the day would not restrict an Israeli decision to attack Iran.
On March 6, Catherine Ashton, the European’s foreign affairs chief—who also represents the US, the UK, Germany, China, and Russia in dealings with Iran—confirmed an offer to resume talks with Iran over its nuclear program for the first time in over a year. As long as this round of talks in the wake of new sanctions is ongoing, Israel would not be able to justify military action. But should the negotiations collapse, with Iran’s “zone of immunity” drawing near, Netanyahu might seize on that opportune moment for a preventive military strike.
Suliman Alatiqi is an international affairs analyst from Kuwait currently working with the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributor to The Kuwait Times.