The U.S.-Israel Divide on Iran

Portrayed mainly as a tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel divide over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program is much more serious and dates to the 1980s. It reflects the difference in each country’s margin of error. President Obama has only widened an existing divide by suggesting Iran might be returned to the family of nations short of dismantling its nuclear program. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned appearance before Congress will articulate Israel’s existential concerns and try, perhaps, narrow the differences over ends, if not means.

The Washington Post, unstintingly liberal in both foreign and domestic policy, has become increasingly skeptical of President Obama’s approach. David Ignatius, Associate Editor of the Post and a columnist exceedingly well connected to the State Department, this week ran excerpts of his interview with Israel’s Minister of Security, Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz, unstintingly hard line in both foreign and domestic policy, made three primary points:

  • Israel was pressured to accept U.S-Iran negotiations, but, “From the very beginning, we made it clear we had reservations about the goal of the negotiations. We thought the goal should be to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat, not verify or inspect it.”
  • The U.S. appears increasingly willing to make a “kick the can down the road” deal with Iran because the President believes there will be a major change in leadership after Khamenei (now 75 years old). “I understand the logic, but I disagree… To believe that in the next decade there will be a democratic change in leadership and that Iran won’t threaten the U.S. or Israel any more, this is too speculative.”
  • Regarding stability in the Middle East, “Iran is part of the problem and not part of the solution -- unless you think Iran dominating the Middle East IS the solution.”

Ignatius seems to agree. “People who think that a nuclear deal with Iran is desirable, as I do,” he wrote, “need to be able to answer Steinitz’s critique.”

Steinitz is, in fact, making the argument Israel’s last ambassador to Tehran, Uri Lubrani, made beginning in the 1980s. Between 1982 and 2011, I had the honor of escorting groups of retired American Flag and General Officers to Israel where they would meet with Lubrani, and later also with Steinitz. "It is a race between the revolution and the bomb," Lubrani would say. By the end of the 1990s, he was increasingly convinced that the bomb would come first.

This heightens the focus in Israel on whether and under what circumstances a military option would be required to stop Iran. It was then that the question, “stop Iran from what” surfaced; was it nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons capability? 

Israel always had assumed that if -- stress “if” not “when” -- the time came for a military strike, the U.S. would be part of the package. There was never an "Osirak option" for Israel against Iran -- no single strike that would end the program, and Israelis in government had always been clear that a setback was the best that could be expected. The Osirak raid itself wasn't expected to eliminate Saddam's program, just set it back about 18 months to 2 years. But the French declined to supply another reactor, effectively ending the program in that form. Iran learned from that and separated, buried, and hardened its facilities, and improved its air defenses. One key facility is alongside and under Qom, as Iran assumed no one would want to be responsible for blowing up "the holy city of Qom,” or its civilian population.  

Under those circumstances, not only was there no "single strike" option, but the multiple strike option became harder every year -- and increasingly less manageable by a small country alone. And the U.S., which had been critical of Israel’s Osirak strike (at least in the beginning) didn’t want to be part of a similar exercise against Iran, so it moved the goalposts -- Iranian nuclear capability might be tolerated.

America spent the Clinton years spending the “peace dividend,” and Iran was occupied with the Iran-Iraq War, so the divergence of view didn’t rise to the level of an emergency.

President Bush had other priorities after 9/11 (although in 2003 the Iranians were terrified that he would take the war in a different direction, and maybe he should have). By the second Bush term, it was clear to the Israelis that there would be no joint military strike, and President Bush denied Israel the bunker-buster bombs (more powerful than those Israel had), effectively telling Israel not to try it on its own either. Somewhere -- maybe here -- it should be noted that at the height of the Iraq War, when Iranians were killing American soldiers, the Bush administration did not respond, preferring to downplay Iranian direct aggression against the United States.

With the American “red line” being nuclear weapons, not capability, the negotiated option became a non-starter from the Israeli point of view. President Obama simply took his predecessors’ position and added his own interest in seeing whether Iran could be made part of the security architecture of the region at the price of Western acquiescence to its nuclear program.

Israel maintains that it will face its existential threat regardless of American assistance or, more likely, American displeasure. An IDF Chief of Staff said once that his obligation was to “Jewish generations past, present and future.” Congress and the president should have no objection to hearing that point of view.

Portrayed mainly as a tiff between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel divide over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program is much more serious and dates to the 1980s. It reflects the difference in each country’s margin of error. President Obama has only widened an existing divide by suggesting Iran might be returned to the family of nations short of dismantling its nuclear program. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned appearance before Congress will articulate Israel’s existential concerns and try, perhaps, narrow the differences over ends, if not means.

The Washington Post, unstintingly liberal in both foreign and domestic policy, has become increasingly skeptical of President Obama’s approach. David Ignatius, Associate Editor of the Post and a columnist exceedingly well connected to the State Department, this week ran excerpts of his interview with Israel’s Minister of Security, Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz, unstintingly hard line in both foreign and domestic policy, made three primary points:

  • Israel was pressured to accept U.S-Iran negotiations, but, “From the very beginning, we made it clear we had reservations about the goal of the negotiations. We thought the goal should be to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat, not verify or inspect it.”
  • The U.S. appears increasingly willing to make a “kick the can down the road” deal with Iran because the President believes there will be a major change in leadership after Khamenei (now 75 years old). “I understand the logic, but I disagree… To believe that in the next decade there will be a democratic change in leadership and that Iran won’t threaten the U.S. or Israel any more, this is too speculative.”
  • Regarding stability in the Middle East, “Iran is part of the problem and not part of the solution -- unless you think Iran dominating the Middle East IS the solution.”

Ignatius seems to agree. “People who think that a nuclear deal with Iran is desirable, as I do,” he wrote, “need to be able to answer Steinitz’s critique.”

Steinitz is, in fact, making the argument Israel’s last ambassador to Tehran, Uri Lubrani, made beginning in the 1980s. Between 1982 and 2011, I had the honor of escorting groups of retired American Flag and General Officers to Israel where they would meet with Lubrani, and later also with Steinitz. "It is a race between the revolution and the bomb," Lubrani would say. By the end of the 1990s, he was increasingly convinced that the bomb would come first.

This heightens the focus in Israel on whether and under what circumstances a military option would be required to stop Iran. It was then that the question, “stop Iran from what” surfaced; was it nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons capability? 

Israel always had assumed that if -- stress “if” not “when” -- the time came for a military strike, the U.S. would be part of the package. There was never an "Osirak option" for Israel against Iran -- no single strike that would end the program, and Israelis in government had always been clear that a setback was the best that could be expected. The Osirak raid itself wasn't expected to eliminate Saddam's program, just set it back about 18 months to 2 years. But the French declined to supply another reactor, effectively ending the program in that form. Iran learned from that and separated, buried, and hardened its facilities, and improved its air defenses. One key facility is alongside and under Qom, as Iran assumed no one would want to be responsible for blowing up "the holy city of Qom,” or its civilian population.  

Under those circumstances, not only was there no "single strike" option, but the multiple strike option became harder every year -- and increasingly less manageable by a small country alone. And the U.S., which had been critical of Israel’s Osirak strike (at least in the beginning) didn’t want to be part of a similar exercise against Iran, so it moved the goalposts -- Iranian nuclear capability might be tolerated.

America spent the Clinton years spending the “peace dividend,” and Iran was occupied with the Iran-Iraq War, so the divergence of view didn’t rise to the level of an emergency.

President Bush had other priorities after 9/11 (although in 2003 the Iranians were terrified that he would take the war in a different direction, and maybe he should have). By the second Bush term, it was clear to the Israelis that there would be no joint military strike, and President Bush denied Israel the bunker-buster bombs (more powerful than those Israel had), effectively telling Israel not to try it on its own either. Somewhere -- maybe here -- it should be noted that at the height of the Iraq War, when Iranians were killing American soldiers, the Bush administration did not respond, preferring to downplay Iranian direct aggression against the United States.

With the American “red line” being nuclear weapons, not capability, the negotiated option became a non-starter from the Israeli point of view. President Obama simply took his predecessors’ position and added his own interest in seeing whether Iran could be made part of the security architecture of the region at the price of Western acquiescence to its nuclear program.

Israel maintains that it will face its existential threat regardless of American assistance or, more likely, American displeasure. An IDF Chief of Staff said once that his obligation was to “Jewish generations past, present and future.” Congress and the president should have no objection to hearing that point of view.