Obama-Rouhani Warming Worries Israel


After a historic telephone conversation between  President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to abruptly close much of the daylight between them on Tehran’s nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was flying to Washington on Sunday to try to close the daylight consequently opened between Obama and himself.

While the Americans believe that Rouhani’s friendly overture is sincere — albeit brought about by sanctions that have led his country to the brink of economic collapse — the Israeli leadership fears that the conciliatory
tone is just a bid for more time to finish building their bomb.

“American and Israeli officials like to say there’s no daylight between them on Iran,” a former U.S. official said. “But with his words alone, Rouhani has opened a window.”

As such, Netanyahu’s mission will be to dispel American credulity and impress upon them once again the true nature of the Iranian regime. He is scheduled to meet with Obama in Washington on Monday, and will then go to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

“I will speak the truth. Facts must be stated in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” Netanyahu said at the airport in Tel Aviv before departing for Washington on Motzoei Shabbos.

Obama reportedly will press Netanyahu for time to test Rouhani’s intentions, while trying to reassure Israel that he will not ease sanctions prematurely. He is likely, however, to resist Israeli pressure for a precise time limit for diplomacy with Iran to produce a deal, a source close to the White House told Reuters.

Israeli leaders watched with great dismay what they derisively call the “smiley campaign” conducted by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, last week. Rouhani delivered a conciliatory speech at the United Nations in which he repeated Iran’s official position that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon and declared his readiness for new negotiations with the West.

Capping off the visit, Rouhani and Obama spoke on the phone for 15 minutes as the Iranian leader was traveling to the airport. By the end of the call, the first conversation between the nation’s leaders in 34 years, Obama was suggesting that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could portend even deeper ties between the U.S. and Iran.

U.S. and European diplomats hailed a “very significant shift” in Iran’s attitude and tone.

Acknowledging Netanyahu’s concerns, Obama insisted on Friday he would not do anything to endanger Israel, and a senior administration official conceded that “the Israeli government has every right to be skeptical” of Iran.

Whatever the disagreements aired during the Obama–Netanyahu parley, it is thought unlikely that it will lead to a new falling out between the two, at least not in public. Too much is at stake.

“He had a very dysfunctional relationship with Netanyahu and they managed to overcome it,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “The idea that he would now pick a fight with the Israelis is improbable. They will look for common ground.”

At the same time, Obama may see an advantage in allowing Netanyahu to play “party pooper” — as Israeli media have dubbed it — to keep the pressure on Iran while maintaining European support for sanctions.

Before leaving for the U.S., Netanyahu instructed his ministers not to comment on the Obama-Rouhani phone call, so as not to undermine his efforts to keep the U.S. and Israel on the same track in regard to Iran. Netanyahu’s own office made no comment on the call.

But that did not deter Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avigdor Lieberman (not currently a minister) from issuing his warning that Iran’s recent “appeasement attack” was merely a trick to buy time.

The Israelis are not the only ones in the region unnerved by the warming U.S.-Iran climate.

Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia are also skeptical that the menace of a nuclear Iran has melted away overnight.

“There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who is close to the royal family, quoted in The New York Times.

“My concern is that the Americans will accept Iran as it is — so that the Iranians can continue their old policies of expansionism and aggression,” he added.

Meanwhile, Israeli concerns about what lies behind the Iranian charm offensive were underlined by a military parade in Tehran on Sept. 22, attended by Rouhani himself, seated alongside military and Revolutionary Guards leaders.

Iranian messages that were featured during the parade included “Down with America” in English, “Death to America” in Persian and Arabic.

A line of Shahab-3 missiles passed in review. They have a 1,300-kilometer range, capable of striking both Israel and American bases in the Persian Gulf. The lead vehicle carried a poster that said: “America Is Not as Powerful as It Claims to Be.”