The current issue of Newsweek has a must-read inside look at what drives President Obama’s Iran policy, including the ups and downs of his relations with Israel on the matter.
The article, by Newsweek writers Daniel Klaidman, Dan Ephron and Eli Lake (Lake is a former Forward correspondent), reports that Iran was the main topic of Mossad director Tamir Pardo’s secret trip to Washington two weeks ago. America is pressing Israel to give sanctions time to work before attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel worries that by that time, Iran’s nuke infrastructure will be too secure for an Israeli raid to destroy, and only America will have the capacity. Among other things, Pardo wanted to know whether America is likely to attack, how advanced its preparations are, how it will react if Israel attacks and so on.
Israel has several times sought a promise from Obama to attack if sanctions fail, but hasn’t gotten one. As a result, Israel keeps its own intentions vague. This is an improvement from the total information blackout that Prime Minister Netanyahu imposed on Washington from June to October last year, in pique over Obama’s “based on the 1967 borders” speech. Today information sharing is quite extensive, though Washington keeps a certain amount of intelligence from Israel when it fears it could enable actions that violate U.S. law, like assassinations.
Obama first discussed Iran with Israeli leaders back in 2008, while he was still a candidate, and he “impressed everyone with his determination to stop Iran from going nuclear,” Newsweek reports. His conversation with then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, however, left Netanyahu troubled that Obama “didn’t talk specifically about Israel’s security”:
Rather, he discussed Iran in the context of a broader non-proliferation policy. “He showed much command of the issues, even though it was months before he got elected,” says the Netanyahu source. “It was clear that he read and internalized things. But when he spoke about Iran and his opposition to the nuclearization of Iran … the Israeli factor did not play prominently.”
Much of Newsweek’s report is devoted to the evolution of Obama’s own Iran thinking, including his initial determination to pursue dialogue so that if and when it failed, skeptics like Russia and China could be brought around to sanctions, having been shown that there really was no other path. Newsweek understates the degree to which this was interpreted in Jerusalem as weakness, which Washington Republicans exploited to the hilt. In any event, Newsweek writes,
Israeli officials now insist that Obama has undergone what they regard as a positive evolution in his views on Iran. “The rhetoric from the United States today is different from what it was a year ago,” says an Israeli in Netanyahu’s inner circle. “Today, when you listen to Obama … you get the feeling the Americans are ready to attack if worse comes to worst.” …American and Israeli officials attribute Obama’s toughening stance to several factors, among them the Iranian regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 2009. The discovery the same year of a secretly constructed underground nuclear facility near Qum “was the real turning point,” says former assistant secretary of state P.J. Crowley, who was in office at the time. “Whereas prior to 2009 there was hope that there could be dialogue, after Qum significant action shifted toward the pressure track. We’ve never closed the door to engagement, but clearly after September 2009 there was acceleration of other activities.” Then came the news in January of this year that the facility near Qum was being used to process 20 percent enriched uranium. That announcement, combined with intelligence about weapons development detailed in a November 2011 report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, led many to see the danger as increasingly clear and present.Obama is also thinking more broadly—about a possible nuclear-arms race in the region and the reputation of the United States. One of the senior Israeli officials interviewed for this article says he has heard U.S. counterparts express concern that a failure to stop Iran could lead to an eclipse of American power in the Middle East. …
On the other hand, “Obama’s calculus … has to take in other factors as well,” including:
…once bombs and missiles start flying, the endgame is hard to predict. What happens if Iran manages to sink an American warship? Or, more likely, what happens if an air assault only consolidates support for the regime while the nuclear program, only partly hidden today, becomes entirely secret? Is there a war of attrition? An all-out invasion? Yet another long, wasting war for America in the Middle East? Already many commentators are pointing out apocalyptic risks. Mike Lofgren, for decades a Republican staffer on the Hill, recently warned of a toxic mix of international tensions and American domestic politics analogous to Europe in 1914, when a relatively small and unexpected event triggered the first war to engulf the world.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).