Jewish Journal


September 27, 2012

Netanyahu, Obama and Iran: The red line, the deadline and the headline



Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb as he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, September 27, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

President Obama, speaking at the UN, was trying to be clear:

So let me be clear. America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable.  And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.


Prime Minister Netanyahu was also trying to be clear:

To be credible a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program, on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium… There is only one way to peacefully stop Iran - and this is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear program. Red lines do not lead to war, they prevent war…. Some say a nuclear armed Iran would stabilize the Middle East. Yeah right. That's like a saying a nuclear armed Al Qaeda would usher in world peace…

But do we have a clearer picture today as to the way forward for the U.S. and for Israel in regards to Iran? Consider the following points:


We just got off the hook: There will be no war between Israel and Iran before next spring or summer (that is, unless the Netanyahu speech was all a smoke screen). If Netanyahu was clear about anything, it was this: We do not have mere weeks or months to stop Iran, we have more than half a year to go before the red line meets the deadline.

He was also clear about Israel’s right to act – not new, about the urgency of resolving the Iran situation – not new, about Iran’s menace – nothing new there either. In fact, except for the very specific red line clause, it all seemed utterly familiar. The prime minister gave a good speech, in which he presented a well-worn case for stopping Iran sooner rather than later. And it should be noted that he was speaking to the American administration and the American people, not to the UN. For good reason, Netanyahu doesn’t have much faith in UN mechanisms. He was speaking to “Republicans” and to “Democrats”, not to Russians and Chinese who are blocking attempts to up the pressure on the Iranians further. Thus, his most effective line was this one: “To understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine a world with a nuclear-armed al Qaeda”.


Here’s another issue that was clarified today: While Netanyahu is making an effort to reduce the heat and avoid further confrontations with the Obama administration, he is not willing to do it by conceding on the “red line” principle. He was careful today not to demand red lines from the U.S., not to lecture Obama, not to confront the Clintons – but his message still runs contrary to that of the Obama administration.

Clinton said that the U.S. is “not setting deadlines”. Netanyahu says that, “There is only one way to peacefully stop Iran - and this is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear program. Red lines do not lead to war, they prevent war”. This is not a theoretical debate – it is one that might decide if and when and who is going to war.


When President Obama says that "time is not unlimited" he must have one of two things in mind: either he is bluffing and just buying time – possibly to sway Israel against attacking Iran, or he has "red lines" for Iran – those red lines over which the administration was having a public battle with the Israeli government. That is, because to know that time is "not unlimited" or that time is "running out", one must have some idea as to what "time" means in this context. It can be "time" – namely, six months, or three years, or five decades – that separates the "not unlimited" from the "very limited" from the "time up". Or it can be some other measure – technical breakthrough, political development, policy change – that separates the "not unlimited" from the "very limited" from the "time up". No matter which of the two, or what combination of elements it is, Obama does have a red line in mind.


It is not the first time for Obama to declare that "a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained". Again, the president must have one of two things in mind: either he is bluffing, to buy time (in such case expect him to say two years from now that circumstances have changed and containment has become possible). Or he truly believes that Iran can't be contained now or in the future. If it can't be contained, three options remain: to cave and be defeated; to go to war when Iran gets the bomb; to preempt. That is, unless Obama's call to resolve this issue "through diplomacy" proves to be more productive than previous such calls.


When the president says that a nuclear Iran "threatens the elimination of Israel", does it make Americans more prone to use all means against Iran – including war - or just more adjusted to the idea of the possible elimination of Israel? A couple of months ago I wrote about the two types of opposition to the prime minister's frequent use of doomsday language when he talks about the Iranian threat:

"Iran is a danger, but to claim that it is creating a second Auschwitz? I compare nothing to the Holocaust,” [Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie] Wiesel told the Globes last week. He believes that to invoke the Holocaust like this is to trivialize it. There are other reasons to object to Netanyahu’s rhetoric. Those who oppose a preemptive military strike against Iran suspect that all this talk might become facile justification for an attack. Others argue that raising the prospect of another Holocaust undermines the very foundation of Israel, which was created so that Jews would never be victims again. Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who until recently led the opposition party Kadima, said a couple of weeks ago, “We are not in the ghetto, and there is no place for Holocaust comparisons.” If Wiesel’s objection rests on a kind of Holocaust exceptionalism, Livni’s rests on Israel’s exceptionalism: now that this country exists the Holocaust cannot happen again. Similarly, the novelist Amos Oz has said that “anyone who compares Iran of today to Hitler, and Israel to Auschwitz, is committing an act that is anti-Zionist and demagogic.”

Would Oz and Livni now say Obama was being anti-Zionist and demagogic in his speech? (Don't lose any sleep awaiting such denunciation. I'd assume the two and all fellow critics would blame this one on Netanyahu as well – Obama, they'll say, is only quoting the grave assessment of the Israeli PM).


If you have the time, the energy and the interest to understand the full range of issues and possibilities associated with any future decision of the President's – Stephen Hadley's long article in Foreign Policy would be a good start. Hadley, formerly Bush Jnr's national security advisor, lays out the options carefully and methodically without making a judgment call.

His eight possible options:
a. Limited interim agreement with Iran
b. More ambitious interim agreement
c. Final agreement
d. Embrace the status quo
e. Long term isolation and pressure
f. Limited military strike
g. Major military strike
h. Acquiescence over a nuclear-armed Iran
Of these eight options, the president, by my count, already eliminated some. He said that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable – namely, no acquiescence. Long term isolation also seems a little tricky if Obama is serious about his "time is not unlimited" warning. The president already hinted that any discussion of options f and g (military strikes) is premature. And this leaves him (for now) with the first four options – the options for which he needs the cooperation of the Iranians, or with a mix of partial execution of several options in parallel (mainly isolation, but not "long term", and renewed attempts at getting to negotiations over options a, b, c, d).

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