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The Obama / Netanyahu Rift

There are some indications of a widening split between top officials over the way to engage Iran within the framework of the 5+1 talks. On the one hand, there are those, echoed by Obama himself, who argue that a deal over the Iranian nuclear program is possible. On the other are those who argue that the talks are doomed to fail, and even desperately hope for their collapse.

The “Bomb Iran” crowd has had input into the demands presented to the Iranians by the U.S.:  they must suspend higher uranium enrichment, close down the Fordow  enrichment facility, and “surrender” their stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity. Iran is unlikely to agree to all of these, but this mix of demands allows for negotiations that might lead to a peaceful resolution to the stand-off. David Ignatius has intimated in a Washington Post column that a deal has already been negotiated behind the scenes.

The deal would center on the recognition by the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany that Iran indeed has the right to enrich uranium, a right made very clear (and described as “inalienable”) in the Non-Proliferation Treaty but one that Israel (with its extensive, secret nuclear program) refuses to recognize, period.

If a deal is struck, it would delight the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (In 2007 the Times of London reported that “Some of America’s most senior military commanders are prepared to resign if the White House orders a military strike against Iran, according to highly placed defence and intelligence sources.”) Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned while in office, “If you think the Iraq War was hard, an attack on Iran in my opinion would be a catastrophe.” His successor Leon Panetta has voiced a similar opinion.

A deal would satisfy the intelligence community, which has repeatedly reported with “high confidence” that Iran has not had a military nuclear research program since 2003.  (Despite this—and showing the power of systematically disseminated disinformation, a new Washington Post-ABC news poll finds that 84% of people in this country believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program.)

It would please Obama’s original electoral base, the antiwar community that appreciated his opposition to the Iraq War, but has become largely disillusioned with him due (among other reasons) to the endless, hopeless war in Afghanistan which he has made wholly his.

It would enrage the Likudists in Israel, who would view it as a betrayal. Perhaps Israel would then act alone (as it did in bombing Iraq’s French-built reactor in 1981), risking a crisis in the relationship with the U.S.  A deal leaving the Iranian regime intact  would disgust Republican leaders who would accuse Obama of weakness, and Romney would repeat his charge that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.” (The Republican presidential frontrunner said this in January, when Obama stated, “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” That mere reiteration of longstanding U.S. policy constitutes betrayal for the most profoundly loyal to Israel.)

A deal would infuriate many if not most of the Israel Lobby who would talk about the “appeasement” of today’s “Hitler,” etc.

But Obama would be able to reply, “We got what we wanted, firm, verifiable assurances from Iran that Iran will not enrich uranium beyond such-and-such a level and will never be diverted to a military program. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given us his word. . . The following enhanced IAEA monitoring measures have been set in place… To those demanding an attack, I ask: Do you really think it’s worth it to place more young American lives in jeopardy, see the price of oil rise by a third, risk inviting a Security Council resolution denouncing our action as a violation of international law that we’ll have to veto, and produce further turmoil throughout the region—in order to destroy a non-military nuclear program, the sort that any Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory nation is entitled to by international law?”

He would be able to detail how all the U.S. intelligence agencies, in 2007 and 2010 declared that Iran had no nuclear weapons program, and ask, “Is it worth war and sacrifice for our people weary of war to try to destroy a nuclear program that isn’t a threat to us, just because some people have decided that even such a program, like those of Japan or Brazil, might develop into a military program and threaten them sometime in the future? Is that logical?”

That would mean directly confronting the wildly paranoid rhetoric of those talking about an imminent “existential threat” and “nuclear holocaust.” Obama has already begun this by denouncing “loose talk of war” by his opponents, and defending the ongoing talks with Iran which, all parties seem to agree, went very smoothly in Istanbul and will resume in Baghdad next month. When the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fumed on April 15 that Iraq was getting “a freebie”  (in the form of more time to develop its imaginary plan to build a bomb and attack Israel with its nuclear arsenal), Obama responded within hours with this riposte:

“The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a `freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

This statement was widely interpreted as “exposing a rift with Israel,” something confirmed by later remarks out of Netanyahu’s office indicating that he favors Romney in the U.S. presidential race.

Such a rift is excellent; may it widen! It’s certainly preferable to conducting an illegal attack that the Israeli leadership, neocon network, some Republican leaders and perhaps evangelical Christian factions pray for but most people in this country oppose. An attack that as Gates noted would be a “catastrophe.” An attack that the former chief of Mossad, who headed the Israeli intelligence agency from 2002 to 2009, calls  “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

The question is, does Obama have the will and the power to agree to a deal? Or is it politically impossible to do so? Perhaps the next few months will show the extent and limits of the power of the Lobby.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gary.leupp@tufts.edu

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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