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Parsing Obama’s words on Israel-Iran nukes issue

by Shmuel Rosner

February 6, 2012 | 12:29 pm

Barack Obama talking to NBC's Matt Lauer, in an interview aired Monday, Feb. 5.

You can watch the video of Obama’s NBC interview here. And here I’m going to try and explain what the President really meant:

Amidst the constant chatter of a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, President Barack Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer last Sunday that he doesn’t believe the decision to attack has been reached.

There’s also the possibility that he knows more, but doesn’t want to share his knowledge. Or maybe he doesn’t really know what’s going on. Or maybe he believes that this is what the President should say at this point in time, regardless of what he actually knows or doesn’t know or wishes to know about Israel’s plans.

There’s been so much talk and so few verifiable facts to dissect—such heavy fog and so many uncertainties, trickery, deception and manipulation that as Obama spoke, I tried to parse the meaning of his words. It wasn’t easy, but I’m happy to share what I believe he said, without pretending to know more than I do. Here’s the President’s words, followed by what I think was meaning:

“I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do”:

1. He`s probably right, the final decision will be made very close to the actual action (if there is action).
2. He`s also saying: I hope they have not yet decided.

“My No.1 priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also, the security of Israel”:

1. Duh?
2. Obama`s first, second and third priorities should be the security of the U.S.
3. One should hope that the security of Israel is still considered an American interest and an American asset.
4. Obama is sending signals to all sides here—calming those who suspect that the White House is too pro-Israel, without neglecting those who hold Israel’s security as the highest priority and want it to be considered as a value in and of itself, and, at the same time, he is reminding Israel that he is, after all, the President of the United States.

“We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this — hopefully diplomatically. “:

1. “Lockstep” - that is, until Israel decides to take action?
2. “Try”, “hopefully” - too much uncertainty for the Israeli ear. Is the President going to “try,” or is he going to succeed?
3. “Diplomatically”—you mean like in Syria?

“I’ve been very clear - we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating a nuclear arms race in a volatile region”:

In truth, the President has never been really clear about Iran. Maybe being clear on such an issue is impossible, maybe it is counterproductive. Will he “try” to solve the problem, or will he “do everything we can”? And what does he mean by “can”?

“Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us”:

That is clearly a warning: Attacking Iran will have impact on the American national interest. The U.S. is not a bystander and cannot be easily ignored by Israeli decision makers as they ponder their options.

“It could have a big effect on oil prices. We’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran.”:

Another warning. If Israel attacks, the American people might not like it, and he is suggesting to Israel that he can easily convince Americans not to like it: Don’t count on your ability to play the inside game of American public opinion.

“I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had”:

1. This is, first and foremost, a political statement. For quite a while now, the Obama team has been using this line as its most effective tool against all “Obama-threw-Israel-under-the-bus” attacks. Obama is a disciplined campaigner and doesn’t miss an opportunity to make use of this line. It is effective for three reasons:
a. It can’t be denied (can you imagine an Israeli official publicly saying that military relations aren’t close?)
b. It can’t be checked and verified, or rebuffed by the press—military and intelligence ties are secret.
c. It gives the sense that while political differences persist (and no one would believe Obama had he said that there are no such differences), the more important issue of security doesn’t suffer from such differences.
2. But is it also true? In some ways it is, in some it isn’t. There is a lot of “consultation,” but measuring whether that really is “closer” than “we’ve ever had” is impossible.
3. Note: “consultation” doesn’t mean that the countries also agree.

“We don’t see any evidence that they have those intentions or capabilities right now”:

Obama is not in the mood for scaring Americans into thinking that a war against Iran must be waged. So the message is: If Iran has no “intention” to harm the U.S., why should the U.S. harm Iran?

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