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Up Front

Obama-Netanyahu Meeting: It’s All About Iran

Tamara Cofman Wittes

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with President Obama, after a week of dramatic diplomacy between the United States and Iran. While topics on the agenda included the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Sinai security, and Syria, Iran was likely to dominate their conversation.

Tensions last year between Washington and Jerusalem over the wisdom of a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program subsided after Obama made clear that he is committed to preventing an Iranian breakout, if necessary by force. Indeed, Israel and the United States seem largely in sync on the big picture of dealing with Iran – Israel has agreed with Obama’s consistent preference to put diplomacy first and view force as a last resort.  In addition, Israel and the United States largely agree on the outlines of an acceptable nuclear deal – that is, one that would lengthen the time needed for Iran to establish nuclear weapons capability by restricting its access to nuclear material and its building and running of centrifuges to enrich that material.

But this week will also reveal looming differences over timing and tone in dealing with Iran. First, Israel and the United States likely face gaps on an appropriate timeframe for testing a diplomatic path to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. For the United States, holding together the wide international coalition it’s built to support sanctions against Iran is a tricky business – and now that the sanctions appear to have brought Iran back to the table, that coalition of countries will be pressing to ensure that diplomacy is “exhausted” before it is abandoned. Israel, on the other hand, has its eye on the enrichment clock, which speeds up every day that Iran builds and sets up more centrifuge cascades for nuclear enrichment. Their focus on enrichment suggest that their patience with diplomacy will run out in just a few months’ time – possibly at about the same time the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are meant to culminate. This could set up interesting, and challenging, tradeoffs in US-Israeli diplomacy between the two issues.

More broadly, the Israelis must be at least a bit dismayed by the swift warming of ties between their most important and powerful ally and their most fervent and dangerous adversary. Iran’s new president and his very Americanized Foreign Minister have dominated the U.S. media over the past week – and Obama and Kerry’s diplomatic overtures have broad public support. Having seen the American public’s exhaustion and reluctance regarding Middle East security explode with a vengeance during the short-lived debate over an authorization to use military force in Syria, Israelis must be at least somewhat concerned that President Obama and his political advisers will be overly eager to seek a deal that can push off any prospect of military action into an indefinite future.

Israeli spokesmen all week have been warning that Iran’s friendlier rhetoric is meaningless unless accompanied by action – and that Iran carries the burden of demonstrating concretely its willingness to accept real constraints on its nuclear program. Israeli commentators are calling out Iran’s continued hedging in statements about the Holocaust as part of a pattern, these critics say, of prevaricating on basic issues. Israel worries that the international negotiators might pursue a near-term deal in which some sanctions might be suspended in exchange for Iranian confidence-building steps. We can expect that Netanyahu’s public statements this week, including his speech at the UN General Assembly, will hammer home all these points.

No doubt Obama and Netanyahu today agreed on the importance of holding sanctions firm, taking a tough stance in the nuclear negotiations, and keeping a military strike on the table as leverage over the talks. But beyond this seeming comity, Netanyahu will be sounding alarm bells about Iran’s sincerity, and seeking active reassurance. If he doesn’t get what he is looking for from the White House, you can expect he’ll also look to Congress to constrain the president’s flexibility in the nuclear negotiations – for example, by making certain types of sanctions relief impossible without a comprehensive nuclear deal.