Criticism of President Barack Obama for welcoming Iran’s recent diplomatic overtures is unfair, or at least premature. It would have been irresponsible for him to order a military operation in Iran — with all the risks of escalation and the potential loss of American life — before exploring all the options.
But there is deep concern that the president, in his eagerness to declare the Iranian nuclear threat “case closed,” will be duped by the ayatollahs, who pride themselves on their cunning and who cite sources from the Koran to justify lying to the “Great Satan.”
Indeed, the very same Hassan Rouhani who last week charmed his way into American hearts has been filmed boasting of how previous Iranian overtures to the West bought the country time to advance its nuclear program by leaps and bounds.
Things are different today. The Iranian economy is in shambles, and even the ayatollahs are concerned that there is a limit to how much distress their public will put up with in order to accommodate their leaders’ megalomaniacal pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Thanks to the international sanctions of recent years — which Obama, with great skill, engineered — Iran’s oil profits, which account for 80 percent of the government’s revenue, have been cut in half. Its foreign currency has been reduced to $80 billion, but due to Iran’s expulsion from the global banking network (Swift), it can only access around $15 billion. This, according to Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, “may cover as little as three months of imports.”
So we have a U.S. president who is desperate to sign an agreement that makes military action unnecessary facing off against an Iranian regime that is desperate to get sanctions eased, and the question is who will blink first.
In the middle, as usual, is Israel. On the one hand, it knows that it will be the Iranians’ primary target if they, chalilah, get the bomb. It also knows that Iran’s reaching such a milestone will set off a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, further destabilizing an already unstable region.
On the other hand, it knows that there is a limit as to how far it can push the administration. Israel’s ties with the United States are a strategic interest of the highest order and it cannot afford to risk straining, or perhaps even rupturing, those ties by openly dismissing administration hopes for a diplomatic solution as wishful thinking.
At the same time, the clock is running out. According to a highly respected analyst in Israel, Ehud Yaari, Iran is no more than “one to two months away” from having sufficient 92 percent enriched uranium to build its first bomb. Another report, in the Maariv daily last week, is even gloomier: Senior government analysts were cited as saying that the Islamic Republic already possesses at least one bomb.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu no doubt had all this in mind when he visited the White House Monday to meet with the president. In the joint press conference that followed their two-and-a-half-hour meeting, held in an extraordinarily warm and friendly atmosphere, Obama went out of his way to assure the Israeli public that he was entering negotiations with Iran “clear-eyed” and would not ease sanctions without getting something concrete in return. “Anything we do will require the highest standards of verification,” he said.
Netanyahu, in turn, heaped praise on the president for his steadfast support of Israel and for his leadership on the sanctions issue. Most importantly, he transmitted the message that the differences between the United States and Israel on Iran are minor and will do nothing to undermine the rock-solid alliance between the countries.
Still, there are differences. Netanyahu is subtly and respectfully pushing the administration to make specific demands of Iran — including shutting its uranium enrichment and plutonium projects and shipping out fissile material. He also wants the West to step up its sanctions as a means of improving its negotiating position.
Netanyahu is correct in making these demands. It is only the sanctions and the credible threat of military action that brought the Iranians to their current position — certainly not goodwill. Any gestures on the part of the West will be interpreted by Iran as weakness and rule out any possibility of reaching a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
The president deserves credit for working closely with Israel on this issue, but he must take additional steps in terms of nailing down an effective system of verification and a timeline that makes it impossible for Iran to drag things out until it’s too late to employ a military option.
These issues are not only critical to Israel, but to the president’s credibility and to his place in history. He has set into motion diplomatic options in two hot spots — Syria and Iran. If he negotiates with “clear eyes,” refusing to compromise on transparent, verifiable measures that rid the Middle East of chemical and nuclear weapons, he will earn the gratitude of Israel and the world. On the other hand, if he allows himself to be taken in by false promises, the consequences are too difficult to contemplate.
It is our prayer that the president be granted the wisdom to lead the free world in this fateful period in history and that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael be granted a reprieve from the existential threats posed by their neighbors.