US-Israel Mixed Messages on Iran

By September 10, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 181

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The recent public dispute between American President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has created confusion over the position of the US regarding military action against Iran. This is the wrong way to bring about an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is imperative that the public sparring come to an end and the lines of communication between the two leaders be clearer. The US ought to consider equipping Israel with enhanced military resources that would allow Israel to confront Iran at a later date, giving Western allies more time to pressure the Iranian regime.

The latest public exchanges between the United States and Israel reveal that American President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are in disagreement over Iran. While Netanyahu may have been too aggressive in his talks about the situation in Iran and the potential for a military strike, Obama felt the need to respond to every statement, ratcheting up the tension between the two.

Obama acts as though the most important war he is waging is against Netanyahu, not the one he should be conducting against Iran. His rage over what he sees as Netanyahu’s support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is apparently driving him up the wall. Meanwhile, the Iranians are mocking the ability of these leaders to present a unified message.

Mixed Messages

The US has been frequently sending mixed and contradicting messages on Iran. While all of Obama’s spokespersons explain how supportive the president is of Israel and its security needs, and how determined he is to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, his chief advisers have made different statements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, says he does not want US forces to be complicit in any Israeli strike in Iran, exposing Obama’s reluctance to use force against the Islamic Republic even after the US elections in November. Vice President Joseph Biden also raised questions about Obama’s determination to stop Iran after the elections. In an election speech, he accused Romney of being ready to go to war in Iran, implying that Obama is not.

On the same day that the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that the US indirectly conveyed a message to Iran – according to which it would not be dragged into hostilities if Iran refrains from retaliating against American targets in the event of an Israeli strike – the New York Times published an article based on a leak from the White House, stating that the US plans to take military measures in the Gulf to threaten and deter Iran. On the same day, White House spokesman James Carney denied that US-Israel relations were in a crisis and told Iran that while there is still time for diplomacy, “this window will not remain open forever.” These statements leave the observer confused about Obama’s intentions.

Disagreement Over the Effectiveness of Sanctions

The question at the heart of the matter is how much more time Obama is prepared to give to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work. The president says the sanctions are working, an assertion that Netanyahu flatly rejects. The problem is that when the two leaders discuss the sanctions process they refer to two different phases. The first phase consists of the sanctions that are designed to exert tremendous economic pressure on Iran’s leaders, while the second phase is the aftermath in which the hardships are expected to change Iran’s nuclear policy. When Obama claims that the sanctions are working he is referring to the first phase; he believes that Iranian leaders are feeling lots of economic pressure and that continued pressure will help alleviate the situation. When Netanyahu mentions failing sanctions, however, he is referring to the second phase, and believes that the hurting sanctions are not going to cause a change in Iranian nuclear policy.

The situation appears a lot more optimistic to Obama than it does to Netanyahu. Israel, however, is concerned with the Iranian procrastination in the negotiations, claiming that Iran talks merely to buy more time to develop the bomb. Iran and the West have been locked in an impasse, as Iran wants the West to remove the sanctions, while the West wants Iran to stop enrichment. Neither side has been willing to budge thus far. The mistrust between Obama and Netanyahu does not help. Obama does not like Netanyahu and is fearful of an Israeli attack before the elections. Netanyahu is skeptical about Obama’s policy and is not sure that the president will use force against Iran if sanctions and diplomacy fail.

Creating a Better Strategy to Stop Iran

This diplomatic row can be solved, but only when the war of words in the press ceases. The contradictory statements serve Iranian interests alone. Obama’s people are also displeased by these damaging verbal jabs and are discussing ways to calm Netanyahu down and prevent what they consider a premature Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Therefore, Netanyahu must secretly travel to Washington and meet with Obama. He should ask the president what he intends to do if and when diplomacy and sanctions fail and Iran continues towards the bomb.

Obama and Netanyahu must reach an agreement on the conditions that would give Israel, the US, and the international community a final opportunity to stop Iran without the use of force. It would be difficult for Israel to attack alone without first reaching understandings with Washington. Due to its superior military capabilities, America’s window of opportunity for striking Iran is much wider than Israel’s. Therefore, one of the solutions is to provide Israel with capabilities it does not currently possess, broadening Israel’s window of opportunity. The US may respond positively to such a request.

Iranian leaders feel that nuclear weapons would ensure the survival of their extreme Islamic regime. They may consider a change in their nuclear policy if they reach the conclusion that the continuing race to the bomb would endanger their regime. Only the combination of harsher sanctions, tough Western positions in future negotiations, and the threat of a credible military strike may bring about a change in the current Iranian nuclear strategy. Secret negotiations between Obama and Netanyahu and creative solutions to the Iranian problem can put an end to the foolish dispute between the leaders. When the president and prime minister come to an agreement on a red line that Iran will not be allowed to cross, they will be able to more effectively place pressure on Iranian leaders and work towards a solution to the crisis.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Eytan Gilboa
Prof. Eytan Gilboa

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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