September 27, 2012
Netanyahu, Obama and Iran: The red line, the deadline and the headline
President Obama, speaking at the UN, was trying to be clear:
Prime Minister Netanyahu was also trying to be clear:
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:
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:
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