Leaders on the verge of nuclear showdown

Leaders on the verge of nuclear showdown

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have similar problems. They are both playing brinksmanship, simultaneously on the same international front but very differently on the domestic front. Neither of them is headed to a restful autumn.

Unlike Netanyahu, the president has no personal electoral nightmare ahead of him. While the fate of his Democratic Party is clearly being tested by the budget crisis and government shutdown, Obama’s personal political future is not at stake in these fights.

The prime minister, assuming he enjoys being in power, needs to continue to convince the Israeli people that his government is managing the Iran and Syria crises. He has budgetary fights to weather and continues to have a festering fight with the religious factions, but these are manageable compared to the potentially existential questions looming.

So far Obama did remarkably well almost despite himself. He addressed the Syrian crisis head-on in August, wiggled out, got some egg on his face, but emerged better. Then he had the meet/don’t meet/let’s make it a phone call with Iranian president Rouhani. The United States was extraordinary close to taking military action against Syria when tactics changed in Washington over the Labor Day weekend, first when Obama changed strategies and appealed for an authorization from Congress and then later when Russia offered its disarmament lifeline. While from the U.S. perspective the jury will be out for quite a while — at least nine months — it at least allowed Obama to step back from a brink he and lawmakers were reluctant to cross.

With respect to Iran, the United States also has adopted a wait-and-see posture. There appears to be some interest on the part of the Iranians to engage the United States and to improve its economic situation while it improves its overall strategic posture with the West. Will it accept Western demands to curb its nuclear development program? That will be the ultimate test of Tehran’s legitimacy (and Obama’s credibility). For the time being, anyway, a military confrontation with Iran is also on hold.

For Netanyahu and Israel, however, the Iranian threat remains very real. During their White House meeting, Obama assured a worried Netanyahu that the United States continued to be committed to sanctions and even to a threat of heightened sanctions — although reports suggest that Israel is extremely unconvinced as to Iran’s intentions and seriousness of purpose.

Israel in general and Netanyahu in particular have consistently questioned whether the Obama administration has as strong commitment as Israel in preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. Admittedly, proximity and the constant existential threat Iran poses explains Netanyahu’s anxieties. On the other hand, the United States as well as most Middle East observers recognize, as Israel has been suggesting for over five years, that a nuclear Iran would threaten much more than Israel.

Still, Israel is in a more difficult bargaining position with the president, who, as he showed with Syria, appears to share the American public’s reluctance to commit the United States to another Middle East war.

Perhaps the one ace in the hole for Netanyahu is that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are also hearing serious skepticism about Iran’s new gambit from U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey. These concerned messages from strange bedfellows have alerted the Obama administration to the dangers of underestimating the Iranian nuclear threat. Netanyahu’s message is a variation on the Hebrew expression: “Respect them and suspect them” — although not so much the “respect” part. In other words, give Rouhani a chance but keep your powder dry.

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