Iran Will Dominate Obama-Netanyahu Talks

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

U.S. President Barack Obama is in Israel today on for his first state visit here. He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss three core strategic security issues.

The first issue will undoubtedly be Iran’s nuclear program, an issue that dwarfs all others in terms of urgency, scope, and impact on international security.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

U.S. President Barack Obama is in Israel today on for his first state visit here. He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss three core strategic security issues.

The first issue will undoubtedly be Iran’s nuclear program, an issue that dwarfs all others in terms of urgency, scope, and impact on international security.

A renewed urgency around the Iranian question may well be the prime, unstated reason for the visit. This could explain why President Obama chose to come in March, despite being unsure that a new Israeli government would even be formed by then after the very recent elections.

In September 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu stood before the world at the United Nations General Assembly, and warned that by the spring or summer of 2013, Iran could acquire a quantity of enriched uranium sufficient for the creation of an atomic bomb, if it continued at its current pace.

A report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released in February, appears to back up the prime minister’s prognosis. It notes that Tehran had accumulated 167 kilograms of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level. Between 220 and 250 kilograms of this material are needed for one nuclear weapon.

In recent weeks, Iran also began installing 180 new-generation centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility. The new centrifuges are capable of enriching uranium three to five times faster than the older machines, meaning that Iran can reach a nuclear breakout phase far quicker now.

Meanwhile, Iran has refused to grant IAEA inspectors access to its secret military site in Parchin, near Tehran, a site where a suspected nuclear detonator is being developed.

On the one hand, Iran has shown it is capable of stepping back from the brink, when, last year, it converted some of its enriched uranium to fuel rods, thereby moving away from Israel’s red line, and decreasing tensions.

On the other hand, Iran’s overall direction is unmistakable. It is moving towards a stage where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei can order his scientists to complete the final steps to create a bomb within a few months.

As Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently noted, in 2007, Iran had 800 kilograms of low enriched uranium from which weapons-grade uranium is ultimately produced. Today, Iran has 6.5 tons of it.

As Tehran’s nuclear program moves forward, another round of failed talks between it and the P5+1 nations (the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany) occurred in Almaty, Kazakhstan in recent weeks.

Not only is Israel frustrated by Iran’s continued tactic of using these talks to stall for time, it is also deeply concerned by the fact that the Almaty talks saw a softening of the international community’s position.

Gone was the previous demand that Iran shut down its Fordow uranium enrichment facility, buried deep under a mountain to immunize it from airstrikes. Gone was the former demand that Iran export all of its low enriched uranium abroad.

Iranian officials were visibly pleased. The Islamic Republic’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazayee, praised the P5+1 for being “more realistic,” and called the Almaty talks “relatively successful,” according to a report by the Iranian Fars media agency.

This comes after three failed rounds of talks in 2012, when delegates met in Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow, and made no progress whatsoever due to Iranian intransigence.

During their upcoming meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu can be expected to ask President Obama about the new, softer negotiations line, which contradicts Jerusalem’s basic expectations of the international community’s stance, and makes Israel nervous about the prospect of an unsatisfactory diplomatic solution.

The prime minister acknowledges that economic sanctions are taking their toll on Iran, but maintains that they are failing in their main task: halting the nuclear program. Hence, decision time could be approaching on potential military action.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will be seeking assurances from President Obama over his pledge to rule out containment, and take any action necessary to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

It is also reasonable to assume that the prime minister will ask the president at what stage the United States is willing to take action. The answers Prime Minister Netanyahu receives might be decisive in shaping an Israeli decision to act, or refrain from acting, against Iran’s nuclear sites.

President Obama will aim to reassure Prime Minister Netanyahu of America’s commitment to stopping Iran, and can be expected to point to America’s significantly greater abilities to achieve this.

These discussions and their outcome could form a critical exchange on the Iranian question.

Additionally, continued U.S. financial backing of Israeli missile defense programs, like the recently tested Arrow 3 system, designed to stop Iranian ballistic missiles in space, and the Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, can be expected to feature in the discussions.

The second strategic issue they will discuss is Syria. Last week’s kidnapping of UN peacekeepers by radical Syrian rebels, who have taken control of the buffer zone near the Israeli border, illustrates the ongoing disintegration of the Syrian state. The most prominent marker of this process is the stunning scale of the humanitarian catastrophe underway in Syria.

As the IDF prepares for the possible exit of UN forces from the area, it must also prepare to encounter jihadi rebel elements, who will seek to turn the border with Israel into an active terrorism zone.

The Assad regime is in control of its chemical weapons arsenal, but this may not always be the case.

These destabilizing developments influence all of Syria’s neighbors, who will be looking to the United States as a vital partner in coping with the aftermath of Syria’s civil war.

Chemical weapons, a growing al Qaeda presence, and Hezbollah’s attempts to get hold of strategic weapons (such as advanced anti-aircraft systems) will likely feature in talks between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama.

The Assad regime is being kept alive due to an Iranian ‘life support machine’ made up of continuous weapons deliveries, generous cash transfers, and battlefield assistance in the form of Hezbollah fighters who have crossed over from Lebanon to take on the Sunni rebels. The rebels are being backed by leading Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Hence, the Syrian civil war is also a proxy war between Shi’ite Iran and its Sunni adversaries, a fact the US and Israel will want to factor in to any regional evaluations.

Some defense figures in Israel, like former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, maintain that despite the inherent regional instability caused by Syria’s civil war, the collapse of the Assad regime is beneficial to Israel, since Syria was the most powerful military adversary faced by the IDF, and formed a vital link in the Tehran-Damascus-Gaza axis.

Others argue that the Syrian regime knew how to keep a durable ceasefire with Israel for 40 years, and that this was preferable to the current phase of uncertainty, which will characterize Syria for years to come.

Either way, U.S.-Israel cooperation should form a vital component in containing the Syrian chaos.

The third strategic issue to be discussed is the Palestinians. Increasing levels of rioting and unrest across the West Bank can be interpreted as a signal that the Palestinian street is frustrated with the status quo and the stalled diplomatic process.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has ignored Israeli requests to attend direct peace talks without preconditions. He has embarked on an international campaign to try and strengthen the PA’s standing at Israel’s expense, and bypass talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will examine ways to kick-start a new diplomatic process. The president may try to convince the prime minister to carry out a number of gestures aimed at getting Abbas to the negotiations table, such as a renewed freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, for his part, may choose to point out Hamas’s attempt to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, and note that these efforts are being thwarted by Israeli intelligence and security presence on the ground.

Both leaders might agree that it is important to prevent a collapse of the PA and a subsequent power vacuum in the West Bank that could be filled by Hamas.

The Hamas regime in Gaza is continuing to try and send tentacles to rebuild itself in the West Bank. It is also quietly attempting to rearm itself with short and medium-range rockets, while overseeing Qatar-funded grand construction projects in the Gaza, following its eight-day conflict with Israel in November.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.