Netanyahu Challenges Obama over Who Sets U.S. Policy in the Middle East

By McArthur, Shirl | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2014 | Go to article overview

Netanyahu Challenges Obama over Who Sets U.S. Policy in the Middle East


McArthur, Shirl, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Prior to the Nov. 24 interim agreement freezing key parts of Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu-apparently afraid of losing the ploy used by weak leaders over the ages to keep a restive population under control via a real or imagined external threat-launched an all-out campaign to scuttle President Barack Obama's efforts. Knowing that imposing new, punitive sanctions on Iran would probably collapse the negotiations on an interim agreement, Netanyahu arrogantly challenged Obama over who in fact sets U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The Israeli prime minister, along with AIPAC, concentrated most of their efforts on trying to convince Congress, specifically the Senate, to pass H.R. 850 "to impose additional human rights and economic and financial sanctions with respect to Iran," which the House passed on July 31. As described in previous issues of the Washington Report, the bill would strengthen existing sanctions and impose new ones, in addition to eliminating the presidential waiver authority included in previous Iran sanctions measures. As Congress recessed for Thanksgiving, the bill remained in the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, where committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) gave no sign of moving it forward.

Netanyahu also dispatched hard-line cabinet members Naftali Bennett and Yuval Steinitz as well as Israel's American-born Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer to launch a full-court press on senators to pass the measure. Using the classic demagogue's tactics of argument, intimidation and outright lies, they echoed Netanyahu's claim that the proposed interim agreement, whose details Netanyahu hadn't even seen, would be a very bad deal, "the deal of the century for Iran," and that no deal would be better. But Secretary of State John Kerry and others argued convincingly that passing new sanctions during the negotiations would probably alienate key allies who have cooperated in maintaining hard-hitting sanctions on Iran.

The administration responded to Israel's assault with a counter-offensive, pointing out the inaccuracies in the Israelis' arguments. For example, the Israelis claimed that the interim agreement would offer Iran between $20 billion and $50 billion in sanctions relief; Kerry and other administration officials say it would be no more than $7 billion or so. The Israelis said the deal would delay Iran's nuclear program by only 24 days; the administration says it will be much longer.

Netanyahu, in several media interviews, staked out a maximalist position that any deal with Iran must ensure that Iran stop uranium enrichment at any level; stop work on its Arak heavy water reactor; reduce the number of installed centrifuges; and provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to information, facilities, and individuals relevant to its nuclear program. On Nov. 15 Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), John Cornyn (TX), Mark Kirk (IL) and Marco Rubio (FL) wrote to Obama dutifully echoing Netanyahu's position. Earlier, on Oct. 14, a bipartisan group of 10 senators, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and leading Iran hawk Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), signed a slightly different letter to Obama that included the key provision that any agreement must "include immediate suspension of all enrichment activity." This, of course, was a major sticking point, because Iran insisted on its "right" to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

On Nov. 19 Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Menendez and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Kerry about the negotiations, and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) wrote to Obama. Although using different language, both letters complained that the scope and content of the interim agreement being discussed would offer too many concessions to Iran in exchange for too few concessions from Tehran. …

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