Obama Tastes the Bitter Fruit of Appeasement…of Israel, not Iran

Jeffrey Goldberg opined on his twitter feed that the Netanyahu-Obama grudge has its roots in Obama not letting Netanyahu bomb Iran.

That’s BS, I think.

I suspect that if Netanyahu really wanted to bomb Iran’s hardened and dispersed nuclear facilities–and enrage its population and a good chunk of the Muslim world and virtually guarantee that Iran would actually build an atomic weapon–instead of simply engaging in polarizing posturing, President Obama would simply be one in a long line of US and Israeli military and security poohbahs seeking to restrain Israel’s bellicose PM, if not put him in a straitjacket and remove him from office.

No, Netanyahu will never forgive Obama for challenging the security narrative that is so important to Israel’s position in the Middle East and Netanyahu’s own political fortunes: the assertion that a) Israel b) the region c) the world face an existential threat from an unhinged theocracy that wants to bathe the world in blood.

Now, ironically, there is an unhinged theocracy that really wants to bathe the world in blood, but it isn’t Iran, it’s ISIS.  Iran is not only one of the Middle East’s more stable states, functional democracies, and diversified economies; it is the only party that has been able to put reliable, capable, and scalable forces in the field to battle ISIS.

As the US, UK, and Canada talk about dispatching trainers to develop a force of a few thousand loyal praetorians who, hopefully, will appreciate US materiel, leadership, and air support sufficiently not to defect to the ranks of Islamic extremists, Iran is deploying highly effective battalion-strength forces to roll back ISIS in Iraq.

The irony, I suspect, is not lost on Netanyahu, who has compensated by pumping up the rhetoric against Iran and its endlessly purported, alleged, and as yet undemonstrated intentions to develop a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is chugging along with its long-cherished plans for rapprochement with Iran and confronting Israel with the dire possibility that peace will break out and the US will find better things to do—like pivot to Asia–than continue to support the strategically dire, diplomatically ruinous, and economically unpalatable task of serving as the primary foreign underwriter of Israel’s detested Palestinian policy.

But there are several reason why Bibi, despite holding a pretty weak geostrategic hand, is able to bellow at Barry on his own front porch i.e. visit Washington as an honored guest to promote Israel’s Iran-bashing agenda.  Some of it has to do with Israel’s PR savvy, Netanyahu’s preternatural impudence, and the seemingly limitless cupidity of American politicians; but it also has to do with the feckless US surrender of the tactical initiative and moral high ground in its Iran policy to Israel in 2010.

Early in his first administration, President Obama may have had the leverage, international support, and political capital to shed the incubus of virtually unconditional support for Israel and pursue a more even-handed Iran policy.  Instead, he doubled down on Israel, with the result that Israel not only claims the right to define what is safe and acceptable in US dealings with Iran; its prime minister now asserts that right before the US Congress in defiance of the US president.

The story begins with President Obama’s plan to use the institutions and processes of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, reinforced by the UN Security Council and US domestic legislation, to achieve America’s strategic objective vis a vis Iran: to make Iran back off from any nuclear weapons ambitions in a conclusive and verifiable fashion, thereby smoothing the way for the US-Iran rapprochement that underlies a lot of common-sense policy planning for the Middle East.

Long ago and in a galaxy far away, President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize for nuclear non-proliferation.  Not for what he had done, but for what he hoped to do.  And he hoped to perfect and impose the rather unequal and onerous Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (hereinafter NPT) regime on the entire world in a sort of Pax Nukus Americana.

President Obama’s determination to perfect the NPT regime and impose it on the world was somewhat quixotic, since the United States is not exactly a model for enthusiastic compliance with the treaty.

America’s non-proliferation cred would have to lean rather heavily on President Obama’s shiny Nobel medal, rather than U.S. enthusiastic adherence to the standards and ideals of the NPT.  America’s own ratification of the crucial Model Additional Protocol for IAEA safeguards is gutted by an enormous national security exemption; thanks to DoD resistance, the Nuclear Posture Review posture calls for continued improvement of the US nuclear arsenal instead of its elimination; and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are distant dreams, given the implacable and united hostility of the Republicans in Congress.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration was determined to shape the NPT into a useful diplomatic tool against Iran and North Korea.  This objective had eluded the intransigently unilateral Bush administration, which had unsuccessfully attempted to unseat the other Nobel Peace Prize NPT-er (and Iran-sympathizer), Mohamed ElBaradei, from his post as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

I suspect that the flip side of the Obama NPT coin was the hope that in return for the US hammering Iran on sanctions, Israel would oblige the world (and sweeten the pill for Iranian negotiators) by declaring its sizable nuclear arsenal under a sweetheart deal (similar to the one India negotiated with President George W. Bush), thereby confirming the universality, viability, and effectiveness of the rather jury-rigged NPT regime.

Back then, I wrote:

America’s most nagging NPT headache probably isn’t America’s glacial disarmament process, or even Iran: it’s Israel. Israel’s undeclared arsenal of nuclear warheads has always been an irritant in US’s Middle Eastern diplomacy and its efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program.

The double standards dilemma has been most acute for Obama, who has designed his geopolitical strategy (and collected a Nobel Peace Prize) around the idea of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons through a combination of enhanced nuclear security, vigorous non-proliferation, and great-power nuclear disarmament under US leadership – anchored by universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Embarrassingly, from an NPT perspective, Israel doesn’t compare favorably with Iran at all.

Iran is a signatory to the NPT and an active if unhappy and not particularly candid participant in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards program. Its current inventory of nuclear material amounts to less than 2 tons of radioactive dirt, perhaps 11 pounds of uranium enriched to just below the 20% threshold (equivalent to less than 3 pounds of HEU if fully enriched), and 0 pounds of bomb grade material.

Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. It joined the IAEA, but does not participate in any safeguards program, apparently regarding its membership primarily as a useful opportunity to pitch negative intel concerning Islamic nuclear ambitions over the Department of Safeguard’s transom. It maintains an undeclared arsenal of at least 200 warheads – perhaps as many as 400.

To build this arsenal, Israel evaded export controls, allegedly diverting heavy water supplied by Norway for peaceful uses to its weapons program and illegally obtaining US krytons (high speed switches) for use in its nuclear weapons program.

And Israel has proliferated. It provided technical assistance and more to the apartheid regime of South Africa that resulted in the construction of six nuclear warheads that could be dropped by bomber on South Africa’s many regional antagonists. It was alleged but never officially confirmed that the Israeli government had also agreed to supply six specially fitted ballistic missiles to carry the warheads, and that South Africa’s sole nuclear test was a joint South African/Israeli affair.

In May 2009, the Obama administration had taken the significant step of naming Israel as a country that should accede to the NPT, backhandedly confirming the state’s commonly known but never officially acknowledged status as a nuclear weapons power.  Per the Guardian:

A diplomatic row broke out today between the US and Israel after Washington’s chief nuclear arms negotiator called on Israel to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), breaking a US tradition of discretion over Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Israeli officials said they were puzzled by a speech to an international conference in New York by Rose Gottemoeller, an assistant secretary of state, who said: “Universal adherence to the NPT itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – also remains a fundamental objective of the United States.”

By including Israel on a list of countries known to have nuclear weapons. Gottemoeller broke with normal US diplomatic practice.

Obama’s initiative to put Israel’s NPT status in play—while cozying up the Muslim world–set the alarm klaxons ringing in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps recalling its own experiences, Israel contemptuously riposted that the NPT “has failed to prevent any country that wanted to from obtaining nuclear weapons”.

A few months later, apparently, the fix was in.

On October 2, 2009, Eli Lake reported in the Washington Times that President Obama had, at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, “agreed to reaffirm the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward the Israeli nuclear arsenal that has prevailed since the Nixon administration: that the United States would passively accept Israel’s nuclear weapons status as long as Israel did not declare or test a device.”

In a sign that US-Israel relations were not running smoothly despite the reaffirmation, Israel dispatched only by a minor government functionary instead of a head of state to the May 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (President Obama’s envisioned forum for groundbreaking nuclear diplomacy and the ritual display of the cherished talisman of American leadership).  Back in Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded to President Obama’s public call for Israel to join the NPT by declaring, “To our friends and our allies we say ‘there is no room to pressure Israel into signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.’”

In the context of President Obama’s overarching commitment to the NPT—and assembling an international coalition including states closely aligned with Iran, especially the PRC and the Russian Federation, and thereby inclined to look askance at the continued U.S. disregard for Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal–there was hopeful speculation (which I must confess I shared) that, despite Israel’s peremptory rejection of the NPT, there was still some possible quid pro quo.

Lake quoted David Albright of ISIS as remarking:

“One hopes that the price for such concessions is Israeli agreement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and an acceptance of the long-term goal of a Middle East weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone,” he said.

If there was a price to be had from Israel, it was definitely on the deferred installment easy-credit plan.

In early 2010 the Obama administration engaged in repeated, interminable signaling that getting the world to sign on to UNSC Iran sanctions—declared to be the indispensable stick to make Iran serious about satisfying the world’s anxieties about its nuclear weapons capabilities– was its absolute highest diplomatic priority.

At the insistence of the Obama administration, ElBaradei’s ever-pliant successor at IAEA, Japan’s Yukiyo Amano, punted on the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, referred the Iran dossier to the United Nations Security Council, and opened the door to sanctions.

Instead of pressuring Israel to make some off-setting concessions that might smooth the diplomatic path, in March 2010, the US adopted a completely opposite strategy.  It allowed Israel to go point in lobbying worldwide for sanctions against Iran—to the PRC, to Russia, even to UNSC non-permanent members like Gabon & Brazil.

The hostile focus stayed firmly on Iran and away from Israel, both at the UN Security Council debate on Iran’s nuclear program in June 2010 and during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Revision Conference or RevCon, held in New York pretty much at the same time.  Iran’s President Ahmadinejad attended the conference, apparently with the forlorn hope that a charm offensive—and pointed demonstration that Iran was a signatory to the NPT and Israel was not—might forestall the looming UN sanctions.

The US determinedly knocked back any attempts to bring up the Israel anomaly and persistently knocked on Iran.

On the last day of the conference, the US delegation stated:

We note further that the final document calls on states to comply fully with the NPT in order to uphold the treaty’s integrity and the authority of its safeguards system. In that regard, we recall Secretary Clinton’s statement at the opening of this Review Conference, noting that “Iran is the only country in this hall that has been found by the IAEA Board of Governors to be currently in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations.” We note that Iran has done nothing to enhance the international community’s confidence in it by its performance in this Review Conference.

Israel, of course, was not “in the hall” and was naturally spared US opprobrium.

At the conference, Ahmadinejad had discommoded the US by proposing once again that Iran’s uranium be sent overseas for fabrication of replacement plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, thereby serving as a mechanism for addressing the West’s stated concerns about Iran’s “breakout” potential to process the uranium into weapons grade material, and also serve as a platform for peer-to-peer engagement.

This display of reasonableness was, to put it mildly, awkward for the West’s position that only actual—not threatened—sanctions by an adversarial alliance united against Iranian perfidy could ensure meaningful progress.

The US diplomatic apparatus, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, lobbied frantically to sabotage a concrete deal on the replacement plates that had been brokered by Turkey and Brazil.

In the midst of all this horsetrading and arm-twisting, the PRC exploited US panic that the Turkey/Brazil deal might go through to extract some potentially useful concessions from the US, mainly that UNSC sanctions would not explicitly target the Iranian banking and energy sectors, giving the PRC some room for wriggling and backfilling.

A few more white lies were needed to make sure that Iran’s initiatives failed to gain any traction with NPT signatories outside of the hardcore US/Israel bloc, as I wrote in May 2010:

Little wonder that France’s Nicolas Sarkozy – the most enthusiastic member of the anti-Iran axis – used his trip to China to declare that the time for sanctions was, basically, now.

“The whole question is to examine at what point the absence of constructive dialogue, must lead to sanctions in order to enhance constructive dialogue. Everyone is convinced that moment is approaching.”

On May 4 at the NPT Review Conference, Egypt, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, circulated a draft resolution calling for the commencement of negotiations including Israel to make the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons free zone.

As Haaretz reports, the Western powers appear willing to support the conference – as long as there are no negotiations and nothing happens:

One Western envoy said Egypt’s insistence on a conference with a negotiating mandate was the main “sticking point,” while another expressed the hope that Egypt would compromise during intensive negotiations on the issue in the coming weeks. …One Western diplomat said the Israelis were “understandably reluctant” to take part, even if the conference’s outcome would be merely symbolic.

Egypt can certainly look forward to a month of geopolitical armtwisting, courtesy of the United States, western Europe, and Russia to ensure that the Israel problem is eventually soft-pedaled and a pro-Western consensus prevails at the conference.

Iran will no doubt notice that Moscow is taking the lead with the United States in order to smother developing-world resentment over the Israel double standard with the illusion of consensus, as Reuters tells us:

The United States and Russia, with the support of the other three countries allowed to keep nuclear weapons under the NPT, are negotiating with Egypt to come up with an acceptable compromise proposal, Western diplomats say.

Given Egypt’s reliance on US aid and the prospect of a dicy leadership transition as President Mubarak seeks to turn power over to his son, Iran may discover that Egypt’s determination to extract genuine concessions on denuclearization in the Middle East might not survive the month of May.

As for that nice conference that was supposed to address the nagging Israeli nuclear weapons problem, fast forward to 2013, and a plaintive op-ed by Mahmud Karem, an Egyptian diplomat who has been involved in nuclear disarmament issues as well as serving as Egypt’s Head of Mission to the EC:

On November 23, 2012 the US announced that the agreed to conference on a Middle East Zone Free from Weapons of Mass destruction (MEWMDFZ), cannot be convened.   This came as a serious blow to collective efforts exerted by many state parties including an appointed Finnish facilitator for the conference, efforts by international organizations such as the OPCW and the IAEA, as well as civil society, to implement a special decision taken during the NPT review conference of the NPT in 2010.  Since the US decision to postpone the conference came only a few weeks before the convening of the conference on December 18, 2012, sabotaging all preparations and pre-conference negotiations, the bitterness felt had ripple effects in the Arab world. “We were all sold out”, said an Arab colleague. All those who approved the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, he added, as part of a package with a specific resolution on the Middle East, should be blamed for believing that the depositories of the NPT would deliver on their commitments.  This particular remark caused severe pain to those who were part of that decision in 1995, myself included.

The biggest victory in the US/Israel campaign was to get the People’s Republic of China—holder of a UN Security Council veto and an important defender of Iran—to throw Iran under the bus by voting for UNSC sanctions in June 2010.

I think we’ll have to leave it to the philosophers as to what role the UNSC sanctions played in the US-Iran (nominally the P5+1) negotiations—if they succeed despite the machinations of Israel and doubts and division in Iran.  Also in the speculative ether is the might-have-been question of what would have happened if the US had tightened the screws on Israel as well as Iran.

“Crippling sanctions” (a term that Secretary Clinton takes pride in coining and claims to have gifted to Prime Minister Netanyahu) has a thrilling ring to it.  But I suspect the PRC’s descent into the ranks of crass and opportunistic allies like the Russian Federation (the PRC ostentatiously throttled down its purchases of Iranian oil while profiting nicely from the pricing and currency and barter deals Iran was forced to make with it) as well as the unappetizing prospect of President Obama being replaced in the White House by Hillary Clinton in 2017 were additional important factors that impelled Iran’s leadership to decide on another round of negotiations with the P5+1 and the US.

If President Obama hoped that his harsh line on Iran would be rewarded by Israeli concessions on acknowledging its own program and acceding to various gateway NPT-related programs, he got punked.  Either the Israeli government outright reneged on any promise to make an NPT-related gesture to save Obama’s agenda (and his face), or it made promises so conditional and over-the-horizon they were easy to discard or postpone.

Or maybe Obama got rolled by Hillary Clinton.  Secretary Clinton’s over-the-top enthusiasm for crotch-kicking Iran permeates her memoir Hard Choices and her single-minded pursuit of UNSC sanctions and relentless lobbying of the PRC were, it appears, decisive.

So I would not be surprised if Clinton told President Obama he was welcome to be the first African-American Jimmy Carter in the White House to stand up against Israel but it would be without Democratic support, on a different planet, and for that matter, with a different Secretary of State.

In any case, I believe the reason that President Obama has to watch his bete noir, Benjamin Netanyahu, challenge his policies from the rostrum of the US Congress to an adoring audience today is because, to use a loaded term, the United States appeased in 2010.

The US appeased Israel, not Iran, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s dicey strategy of ignoring Israel’s nuclear arsenal while characterizing Iran as an existential nuclear threat, emboldening him to polarize the situation as much as possible with his provocative statements and actions, and reaffirming his determination to sabotage an Iran nuclear deal, no matter what.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.


Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.