Netanyahu to Obama: Don't be naive about Iran

Israel aims to temper euphoria about US-Iran rapprochement. Yesterday, Israel disclosed it arrested an Iranian spy earlier this month.

Abir Sultan/AP/File
This Sept. 1, 2013 file photo shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the US today with an unenviable task: arguing that President Obama should be skeptical of Iran's intentions, even as the world cheers its extraordinary change of tune.

“I think Netanyahu is a spoiler – he comes to a party he wasn’t invited to, and he’s going to ruin the party,” says Yoel Guzansky, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv who served as an adviser on Iran’s nuclear program to previous prime ministers.

But some say Mr. Netanyahu, who meets with President Obama at the White House today, sees himself as playing a Churchillian role to alert the world to the dangers of appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime. For one who sees the Iranian nuclear issue in existential terms, being perceived as a party pooper is a small price to pay. 

Perhaps to prove its point, Israeli intelligence disclosed yesterday that earlier this month it arrested a Belgian businessman of Iranian descent for spying on Israel. 

And Israel is not alone. Other US allies in the Middle East are also deeply concerned by the Obama administration’s perceived naïvete, weakness, and desperation for a foreign policy success in the region that could well come at their own expense.

Obama's readiness to support Egypt's mass uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was seen by Saudi Arabia and others as abandoning a 30-year ally; his lack of decisiveness and concrete action on Syria, which has partially become a proxy war for regional interests left regional powers to duke it out on their own; and now the rush to embrace Iran before anything has changed on the ground is adding to such concerns.

“I think Israel and some of the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, are very worried today,” says Mr. Guzansky, who specializes in regional dynamics and frequently travels to the Gulf. “They are very much afraid of a US-Iran understanding that will give Iran some sort of immunity in the region.”

It’s not just the nuclear program that is of concern. Even if the US manages to strike a deal on that question, there is still the issue of Iran sponsoring terrorist groups such as the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border and Palestinian Hamas on its southern flank.

Roots of distrust

It was not always like this. Like the US, Israel had strong common interests with Iran up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the Western-backed Shah was overthrown and replaced with a Grand Ayatollah who saw himself as carrying out the will of God.

But Israel has never been a country to trust others, especially on security issues. In that sense it is more similar to its Arab neighbors, says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

“Israel doesn’t trust anybody, not even the American president,” Mr. Inbar says. “A word doesn’t mean anything. Not even a signed paper. So it’s a big gap between how liberal Americans think about international relations and how Israelis and Arabs [see it].”

A key issue that has led to Israeli distrust in the Iranian regime is a pattern of Iranian leaders denying or minimizing the Holocaust. Though President Hassan Rouhani last week made a significant departure from his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated denials of the Holocaust, some saw him merely softening the language – and suspected him of doing the same with the Iranian nuclear program.

“My grandmother was gassed at Auschwitz. My grandfather died of typhus in Theresienstadt. My aunts and uncles, on both my mother and father’s side, were exterminated in Sobibor, Majdanek, and Belzec, along with nine of their children, my first cousins, all under the age of seven,” wrote Haaretz journalist Chemi Shalev.

"[It is] certainly valid to note that [Iran] may be playing the same game with their nuclear weapons program as they are with their refusal to accept the Holocaust. That just as they are couching their anti-Semitism in more palatable terms, so they are repackaging Iran’s continued drive to produce nuclear weapons in words that spark less suspicion and elicit less scrutiny.”

‘A big opportunity’

Last year Netanyahu came marching to the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoon drawing of a nuclear bomb, and a clear red line cutting across it. His speech, as in previous years, was forceful and followed a summer of threatening to attack Iran unilaterally if the US decided it was unready to join forces with Israel to stop Iran's suspected development of nuclear weapons. 

This year, Netanyahu has much less leverage. Any military action would be seen as spoiling diplomatic efforts, and the diplomacy is unlikely to include Israel in a meaningful way. So he has pledged to simply "tell the truth" about Iran's intentions.

"I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles," he said yesterday before departing for the US. "One must talk facts and one must tell the truth. Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the State of Israel. 

So the best Netanyahu may be able to do at the White House today is to suggest ways that the US and other Western powers can keep the pressure on Iran while pursuing the diplomatic track. 

“Israel should … [tell] them look, they are buying for time, we need to do this and that,” including removing enriched uranium from Iran and closing the enrichment plant Fordow, says Guzansky of INSS.

But Netanyahu should make clearer that he’s willing to give diplomacy a chance under the right conditions, he says. 

Indeed, even though concern about Iran is an issue that crosses almost all political lines in Israel, some are cautiously optimistic about the change in rhetoric of the past week.

“Even if Iran will hold nuclear power with reasonable leadership, that is worrying,” admits Alon Liel, a veteran Israeli diplomat, reflecting widespread views that a nuclear-armed Iran could dictate regional dynamics. “Still, I think it’s an improvement that we have leaders [like Rouhani] that address the world, that want to communicate with the world.

“I feel also a big opportunity here,” he adds. “I think if everybody in the world would react like Netanyahu and everybody would say, ‘It’s a bluff, it’s a bluff,’ then nothing would happen. So I’m glad that a big part of the world, especially Obama, is welcoming it.”

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