A Dangerous Game

By Ephron, Eli Lake Daniel Klaidman And Dan | Newsweek, February 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Dangerous Game


Ephron, Eli Lake Daniel Klaidman And Dan, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman, Eli Lake, And Dan Ephron

Obama needs to keep nukes out of Iran's hands, prevent the global economy from imploding, manage the wild card that is Israel-and get reelected. Achieving one goal can undermine another. Losing is not an option.

Well before he moved into the White House, Barack Obama began talking to Israel about Iran's nuclear program, and even then there was mistrust. He met in 2008 with several leading Israelis, including Benjamin Netanyahu--before Netanyahu was elected prime minister--and impressed everyone with his determination to stop Iran from going nuclear. Netanyahu liked much of what he heard, according to a source in his inner circle. What troubled him, however, was that Obama didn't talk specifically about Israel's security.

Rather, he discussed Iran in the context of a broader non-proliferation policy. "He showed much command of the issues, even though it was months before he got elected," says the Netanyahu source. "It was clear that he read and internalized things. But when he spoke about Iran and his opposition to the nuclearization of Iran ... the Israeli factor did not play prominently."

That discomfort has continued through a series of meetings and conversations since both men took office. On Jan. 12 of this year, Obama called Netanyahu to clarify again, in part, the national interest and policies of the United States in dealing with Iran's nuclear program. The message has been conveyed repeatedly, via many channels: the administration is asking for "the time and the space for the sanctions to work," says a senior administration official. "Not only have we put in place the most robust economic sanctions ever, but we've just started to move on the energy sector." Above all, the White House doesn't want Israel to start a war--not yet, anyway.

For Obama, grappling with Iran policy is like playing a particularly high-stakes match of three-dimensional chess. The game requires the president to achieve several goals: keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the mullahs, prevent the oil-based global economy from tipping into the abyss, and manage the wild card that is Israel. He would also like to get reelected this year.

Achieving one goal can undermine another. Obama's advisers most concerned about the economy, for instance, have been at odds with allies in Congress most focused on preventing Iran from going nuclear. (It would take much less than an oil crisis to restoke panic about Greece and other feeble European economies.) Israel's national interests are not always in line with Washington's. And a messy war--or perceived weakness on Iran--could tip the election for the Republicans in November.

The risks are growing as the game progresses. It's hard to overstate the impact on Iran of a new round of sanctions that is just beginning. The Iranian currency, the rial, plunged even in anticipation of Obama's decision to back the sanctions. The United States has ordered a freeze on all Iranian-government assets in the U.S., Britain has cut off relations with Iran's central bank, and the European Union has announced that it will end existing oil contracts with Iran by July. Iran could lose a quarter or more of its oil revenue, and has no comparable industry to help make up for the loss in hard currency. Prices for basic foods like rice and meat are already soaring.

Meanwhile, mysterious assassins killed yet another Iranian scientist last month--just a day before Obama's phone call to Netanyahu--and Washington's top intelligence official warned that Tehran, already feeling under attack, may be spurred to lash out violently inside the United States. Only a few months ago, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled an alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington--a possible precursor of things to come.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency was recently in Washington for top-level meetings on Iran.

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