September 2012


Attacking Iran: Israel, the Lobby or Obama?

By Ronald Bleier

Listeners to (and viewers of) the Democracy Now segment on the escalating talk in Israel of a military attack on Iran in mid August 2012, could hear the tremble in the voice of Israeli guest, Gideon Levy, the redoubtable Ha'aretz journalist. Although he was skeptical of government threats of unilateral action against Iran's nuclear program, Levy's mantra, "rhetoric has its own dynamic," summarized his fear that relentless pronouncements especially from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barack, might result in reckless action that might recoil with disastrous effect on the Israeli public. Levy wondered how Israel's leadership could climb down without taking military action. 1

But the Netanyahu/Ehud Barack inspired hysteria arrived in the U.S. in a more subdued key and with mixed signals. On the one hand, by the end of August, the New York Times (NYT) was putting down Israeli threats to a cynical effort "to extract commitments from Mr. Obama to act against Iran in the future, perhaps in 2013." 2 But days later the NYT, in a front page story on a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, highlighted portentous news and threats of war while downplaying information that would indicate that Iran had NOT after all crossed a red line.3

The scandal is that the NYT ignores information that the U.S. - not Iran - has been refusing to negotiate in good faith. (See the discussion below.) The NYT consistently blames Iran for the "virtual stalemate" into which the talks have devolved. A typical example of such spin can be seen in the first sentence of the NYT front page article for September 3, 2012.

With Israel openly debating whether to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming months, the Obama administration is moving ahead with a range of steps short of war that it hopes will forestall an Israeli attack, while forcing the Iranians to take more seriously negotiations that are all but stalemated. (my emphasis)4

According to the NYT, it is always Iran that is the stumbling block.

My own guess is that President Obama has no intention of attacking Iran or allowing Israel to do so, before the November elections. For one thing it seems that Obama follows previous sitting presidents, preferring not to inject an international crisis into an election campaign. Also the press as well as the blogosphere is full of information leading to the conclusion that Israeli leaders understand that the formidable political, military, strategic and diplomatic difficulties of an independent Israeli raid make an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities foolhardy.1

I do not believe that Israel's leadership fears a nuclear Iran for existential reasons. I suspect their real concern is that a stronger Iran might threaten business as usual when it comes to Israel's longstanding occupation and theft of Palestinian land and their continued oppression of Palestinians on both sides of their 1967 borders.

And what about Barack Obama? He has been president of the United States for nearly 45 months. What role has he played in creating or allowing the "negotiations" to deteriorate into their current impasse? He clearly understands that if all other options are eliminated, war increasingly becomes the only remaining alternative. Is Obama merely a puppet of the Israel Lobby? Is he angling for Jewish/Zionist support in the coming elections? (p. 3)

As a thoroughly disillusioned former Obama supporter, I believe that the current breakdown of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program is the intended result of the president's intention to press ahead with the permanent war policies so dramatically advanced by the Bush-Cheney administration.

My views led me to focus on three articles from 2012 which explore Obama's handling of the Iran negotiations and which emphasize the role of the Israel Lobby. As it turned out, two of the three articles written months apart bore the same title - "Obama's Drift Toward War With Iran" - testifying to the fateful trend of U.S. policy. The first, by Yale Professor David Bromwich for the Huffington Post, appeared in February 2012 and the second in June 2012 by author and journalist Robert Wright for the Atlantic. 6 The coincidence of the titles is less remarkable since both point to the chief actor, President Obama, as well as to the seriousness of the crisis. As Bromwich puts it: "Nothing could be more disastrous for America and nothing could be less necessary than war with Iran."

The more recent article by Robert Wright spurred a reply by author and blogger Stephen Sniegoski7 that goes to the heart of the Israel Lobby issue. Both articles agree that Obama's obstruction of a negotiated settlement with Iran is a product of Israel Lobby pressure on the White House.

One effect of such a view is to shelter President Obama from a full measure of responsibility for the current dangerous state of affairs. Sniegoski's comment that it is "apparent that Obama does not want war with Iran" characteristically acts as a shield for Obama, offering some protection from those who would charge him with pursuing a reckless imperial policy.

As Wright and Sniegoski explain, the Iranians have made clear that they are ready to compromise on their nuclear program if in return if they can negotiate an amelioration of the severe sanctions regime imposed against them. The difficulty, according to both writers, is that the White House fears blowback "largely from Bibi Netanyahu, AIPAC, and other 'pro-Israel' voices" insisting that under NO circumstances should the U.S. allow any sanctions relief for Iran.

As evidence of U.S. subservience to the will of the Lobby, Wright points to a meeting attended by Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials held in May 2012 with 70 Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Wright quotes Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency which reported that U.S. officials "emphasized that they will be steadfast in upholding one key Israeli demand: That sanctions not be sacrificed to the negotiating process."

In yet another representative example, Wright writes that Wendy Sherman, head of the American delegation to the Baghdad negotiations of May 2012, chose first to go to Israel to debrief the country's leadership before she returned to Washington.

As an anonymous American official explained to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "We updated the Israelis in detail before we updated our own government." The official also summarized the upshot of the personally delivered message: "There are no gaps between the U.S. and Israel in anything related to talks between Iran and the six world powers over the future of Iran's nuclear program."

Wright explains that the crux of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - plus Germany) is over the demand that Iran ceases production of uranium enriched to 20% levels. Weapons grade uranium, Wright explains, requires 90% enrichment after which Iran would be still be two years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to standard estimates. While uranium enriched to 20% has some medical uses, Iran could be provided with the "functional equivalent in a form not amenable to further enrichment" if the P5 +1, led as Wright emphasizes, by the U.S., were seriously interested in a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

But at the Baghdad (May 2012) and Moscow (June 2012) talks with Iran, the P5+1 maintained its hard line. Nor, as Wright emphasizes, were they willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium even to the minimal 3.5 enrichment level. Such low level enrichment is Iran's right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - to which Iran and not Israel is a signatory. P5+1 inflexibility on this fundamental issue is a clear signal to the Iranians that the U.S. has no interest in allowing Iran the most minimal concessions.

Why would the P5+1 adhere to such a risky policy? As indicated above both Wright and Sniegoski believe the unrelenting hard line is due to election year pressure on the Obama administration from the Israel Lobby.

It is at this point that the two writers diverge. For Wright, the good news is that the power of the Lobby may be exaggerated and the political upside of achieving an agreement should not be discounted. Yet Wright believes that even if Obama's calculation of the power of the Lobby is correct, it is "a little scandalous" that a perceived electoral advantage delivered or withheld by the Lobby should put into peril "peace and America's security."


Even while Stephen Sniegoski is impressed that Robert Wright has the courage to raise the taboo subject of Israeli influence over U.S. Middle East policy in a mainstream publication like the Atlantic, he takes issue with Wright's suggestion that the power of the Lobby may be overblown. According to Sniegoski, Obama's re-election hinges on whether or not he obeys the dictates of the Lobby. Sniegoski concedes that while

the Israel Lobby is not all-powerful, its staunch opposition would be sufficient to tip the scales against Obama in a close election. It should be pointed out that the only two recent U.S. presidents who lost re-election bids - Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992) - had taken positions antithetical to those of the Israel Lobby and drew its full ire. In short, in political terms Obama's fear of the Israel Lobby is perfectly reasonable for a politician concerned about winning elections, which would seem to be the case for most politicians. And it is obvious that almost all elected politicians act in this manner toward the Israel Lobby - as clearly indicated by the votes in Congress and the extreme pro-Israel rhetoric of most of the Republican presidential candidates this year.5


While Bromwich comes closest to tagging Obama with the responsibility for the breakdown in negotiations with Iran, yet unsurprisingly, he acknowledges outside pressure, especially from the Israel Lobby. Bromwich writes that Obama "has let the war party have their innings until they are sure that they control him." A nice example of Bromwich's feet in both camps is his qualification that Obama is "reluctant" to go to war with Iran. He writes that Obama is "reluctant, yes, but he is almost a committed man" - committed, Bromwich seems to mean, to war. In the last sentence of his article, Bromwich compares the Iran crisis of 2012 to "what the economy was in 2010." Both crises, he says, were "controllable" but "through personal inaction and conventional acquiescence in failed policies [the Iran crisis] threatens to pass utterly beyond his control."

By "war party" Bromwich clearly includes the Israel Lobby. Bromwich is at pains to point out that Obama has "delegated the matter of Iran" to Dennis Ross who is "the member of the DC permanent establishment who is most reliably associated with the Israel lobby." (my emphasis)

It did not have to be this way, believes Bromwich. There was opposition within the White House to Dennis Ross .

from Gary Samore: an authority on nuclear proliferation. Samore favored direct bilateral talks; but in the end Obama handed the victory to Ross. (Though Dennis Ross has now left government, President Obama is so keen on advice from that quarter that he has installed a phone by which he can talk to Ross directly.)5

From Bromwich's language, his choice of active verbs - Obama delegated the matter to Ross; Obama handed the victory to Ross - we can deduce that Bromwich believes it was Obama's decision, not the Lobby's, to adopt a hard, pro-Israeli, line.

But even so the issue of who controls U.S. Mideast policy may not be so clear. Those like Wright and Sniegoski who favor the notion that on the Iran issue, Obama is effectively under the control of the Lobby might follow up and ask: WHY did Obama chose Ross, and not Samore? Isn't such a choice an indication that the long hand of the Lobby controls such decisions?

In 2008 candidate Obama distinguished himself when he announced that unlike others, he favored negotiations with Iran. As president he must have understood that quick and decisive action, when his political capital was strongest, would be necessary if he were to preempt the Israel Lobby. But quick and decisive action turned out to be the opposite of Obama's style, or his preference in this and on a host of similarly important issues.

As early as the fall of 2009 it was also Bromwich who cast a cold eye on Obama's presidential style of procrastination, suggesting that the White House exhibited a pattern of using delay as an instrument of policy. He noticed an "alarming consistency" to Obama's pattern of inaction on significant policy priorities like Guantanamo, the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Afghanistan. Obama's method, Bromwich wrote, was to begin with a grand pronouncement on a major issue which would be followed by a long period of quiet where nothing happens. The pattern ends with "the tardy self-defense" and in the course of the protracted pause, "the very features that give the impress to his intention are sanded away." 8

Interested investigators might add a dimension to Bromwich's analysis by detailing how Obama often works behind the scenes to subvert his declared policy goals by directing orders to his regulatory agencies and to key supporting members of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is the most notable of these workhorses.

Much of Bromwich's evidence for the way in which President Obama has controlled the Iran negotiations comes from a history of U.S. talks with Iran from a book published in early 2012 by Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran. Bromwich essentially summarizes the lowlights (there are few if any highlights) of the diplomatic record.

Indeed the significance of Parsi's title "A Single Roll of the Dice" tells much of the tale. Parsi explains that his title is a reference to the manner in which the White House directed the negotiations. For the Obama administration successful negotiations would have to be concluded "immediately - or not at all." There was to be, for Washington, only one roll of the dice. Parsi found that there was no stomach in the Obama administration for the "patience and perseverance" required for success. Parsi is much too kind (or wise) to put the matter into its more cynical or realistic form: the Obama administration acted in such a way as to ensure that there would be no successful negotiations with Iran.

Bromwich helps the reader come to exactly that unhappy conclusion. If there is one catchphrase to be taken from his summary, it is that in negotiating with Iran, the U.S. "could not take yes for an answer." The phrase is an accurate characterization of Obama's Iran policy from the time he came into office till the present. The notion of refusing every offer from Iran is so sinister and decisive that it actually moves Bromwich at one point to declare: "Obama let this [the collapse of negotiations] happen."

Perhaps the most striking example of U.S. refusal to take yes for an answer in the Parsi/Bromwich history comes in the spring of 2010 after "Obama missed his chance for an agreement on a low-enriched uranium (LEU) swap by dealing only in ultimatums." An important second chance, "ignored" by the White House was the "Brazil-Turkey swap of LEU which emerged as a concrete proposal acceptable to Iran." Bromwich quotes Parsi:

"by mid-May 2010 Brazil and Turkey had achieved what America and Europe had failed to achieve." This should have been good news; but Obama declined to seize an opening for which he could not have claimed the credit.

Many more details are available in Bromwich's summary but they all add up to a depressing story. An Iranian "yes" for an answer, even to this day, turns out not to be good enough for the Obama administration.

From a U.S. perspective it may be easier to see through Netanyahu's bluff than it was for Gideon Levy. With the help of Bromwich and Parsi and others, it may also be easier to see that the real concern is with the White House, and not so much with Tel Aviv.

1"Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy on the Escalating Talk of a Military Attack on Iran," Democracy Now, August 15, 2012. arrow

2David E. Sanger, "Diplomacy With Iran Still Viable, U.S. Says," NYT, August 25, 2012. arrow

3David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, "Inspectors Confirm New Work by Iran at Secure Nuclear Site," NYT, August 30, 2012. See Peter Hart, "Burying the Most Important News on Iran's Nuclear Program?", August 31, 2012. The FAIR article also included al link to Cyrus Safdari's blog: See note 5 below. arrow

4David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, "To Calm Israel, U.S. Offers Ways to Restrain Iran," NYT, September 3, 2012arrow

5 See for example, Elizabeth Bumiller, "Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets," NYT, February 19, 2012. Uri Avnery, "Israel Will Not Attack Iran. Period", Gush Shalom, November 16, 2011. Uri Avnery," "Striking Iran: Mad or Crazy," Gush Shalom, August 17, 2012. Cyrus Safdari, "My analysis of latest IAEA report on Iran of August 2012," August 30, 2012. Safdari's report is the most extensive discussion I've found on the subject. David Remnick, New Yorker, "The Vegetarian," September 3, 2012. Remnick interviews Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad who believes a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran is a bad idea. Trita Parsi, "Israel Ups Iran Ante, But Is It Bluff?" Forward, published August 16, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012 ... Parsi's article is notable for its helpful discussion of the strategic downside of an Israeli attack. arrow

6David Bromwich, "Obama's Drift Toward War With Iran "Huffington Post, February 2, 2012 (h/t IM), Robert Wright "Obama's Drift Toward War With Iran" Atlantic, June 14.2012 arrow

7Stephen Sniegoski, "Washington Is Worth a War: Obama, Iran, and the Israel Lobby," June 29,2012. arrow

8David Bromwich, "Obama's Delusion," London Review of Books, October 22, 2009. arrow


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