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Prospects for War with Iran Unclear As Obama, Netanyahu End Summit

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - Is war against Iran, either by Israel, the U.S. or both, closer or farther off after this week’s meeting here between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

As more than 10,000 pro-Israel activists, energised by the annual policy conference of powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), fanned out across Capitol Hill to urge their elected representatives to authorise war if Iran fails to halt its nuclear programme very soon, the answer to that question appeared as elusive as ever.

On the one hand, Obama made clear, as he did in his speech to AIPAC Sunday and again in his press conference Tuesday when he accused his Republican foes “beating the drums of war”, that he was determined not to be rushed into taking military action but would rather take advantage of what he called a “window of opportunity” for diplomacy to work.

He appeared to be referring to Tuesday’s announcement that the so- called P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) has responded favourably to an Iranian letter last month and formally agreed to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear programme after a hiatus of more than a year.

“It is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he told reporters Tuesday. “That’s not just my view. That’s the view of our top intelligence officials; it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”

“The president is taking a much bolder and more aggressive posture against the reckless war discourse,” noted Trita Parsi, an expert on U.S.-Israeli-Iranian relations and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

“There are several reasons for this – obviously, because the U.S. military opposes a war with Iran, but also because the war talk shoots up oil prices, which, as the president pointed out in his AIPAC speech, not only benefits the Iranian government, but also causes gas prices in the U.S. to soar and job creation to be undermined,” he said. “And if you’re a sitting president seeking re- election, that’s the last thing you want.”

The president also never retreated from his position that he would not consider taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities unless and until Tehran was clearly weaponising its nuclear programme.

Obama thus successfully resisted pressure from Netanyahu and his many Congressional supporters – both Democrats and Republicans – to set the “red line” for military strikes at a much lower, if vaguer, threshold; that is, when Iran gains the mere “capability” to build a weapon, a line which many experts believe Tehran has already crossed.

On the other hand, some of his statements to AIPAC Sunday suggested that Obama had in effect assumed a more hawkish position, one that could make it much more difficult for him to avoid taking military action or prevent Israel from doing so, if the pending round of negotiations should stall or fail.

Thus, going beyond his administration’s mantra of “all options are on the table,” Obama spoke explicitly of a “military effort” if diplomacy and sanctions fail. He also reiterated a campaign promise from four years ago “to use all elements of American power to … prevent (Iran) from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Similarly, he appeared to endorse a favourite argument of the hawks by explicitly rejecting a “containment policy” against a nuclear- armed Iran.

Finally, he asserted in his AIPAC speech, as he has before, that Israel has a “sovereign right to make its own decision about what is required to meet its security needs,” adding that “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.”

These comments “indicate that the White House now accepts the Israeli premise that Israel cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran, period,” noted Wayne White, a former senior Middle East intelligence analyst at the State Department.

“So if Iran moves in that direction (or simply reaches a point in its nuclear development at which Iran is on the verge of a level of capability that would allow weaponization if it so chose), Washington now apparently accepts that Israeli military action would be legitimate (based on rules set by Israel and the U.S., mind you).”

Indeed, to Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst, Obama’s statement sounded “almost like an invitation to Netanyahu to launch a war”.

That naturally raised the question of how Washington would react if Israel should undertake a unilateral attack.

Obama did not address himself explicitly to that question, although one passage, which followed his recital of the times when his administration defended Israel at the U.N. and other international forums, was suggestive. “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now,” he said. “When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”

While in Friday’s press conference, he insisted that that line was not intended as “a military doctrine” – a caveat that, according to one neo-conservative hawk, showed that he wasn’t serious – it added to the impression that Obama would not take concrete steps to restrain Israel and would defend it if Iran retaliated.

According to Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, Obama’s assurances may actually reduce the risks of war, at least in the short to medium run.

“Obama gave the kind of assurances that the security wing of the Israeli policy-making community wanted to hear,” he told IPS.

In an important op-ed published by the New York Times before the AIPAC meeting, Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, had argued that Obama could prevent a unilateral Israeli attack if he offered “an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity – and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest – Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so.”

“I think Obama ticked the box in terms of creating the ‘zone of trust’ that Yadlin was asking for. I think it will stiffen the spine (of the Israeli security establishment) in their internal conversations,” Levy said.

While Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, are said to be most eager to strike Iran, many retired senior Israeli military and intelligence officials have spoken out strongly against unilateral action and are believed to reflect the views of those who are still in active service.

“I think in his follow-up news conference today, Obama was telling Netanyahu that ‘I’ve given you the assurances that should be sufficient. Now, please stop beating the war drums so I can get into a serious negotiation’ and try to settle this peacefully,” Levy told IPS.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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