Obama’s wedge between Israel and Iran

Barack Obama is hoping Americans’ strong desire to avoid further wars in the Middle East will help seal a nuclear deal with Iran. But staring down Congress' Israel lobby will be a tough battle.

FT.com

For Barack Obama, striking a nuclear deal with Iran may turn out to be the easy part. The President’s biggest struggle now is facing down Israel and its supporters in the US as they attempt to rally opposition to the deal. The administration knows this and it is quietly confident that it can take on the Israel lobby in Congress – and win.

Beneath all the arcane details about centrifuges and break-out times, the Israeli-American dispute over Iran is quite simple. The Israelis want the complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Americans and their negotiating partners want to freeze it in the first instance – and also recognise that any final deal will have to leave Iran with some nuclear capacity.

The real alternative to the Geneva process, argue the Americans, is not the better deal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreams. It is a breakdown in negotiations followed by an accelerated nuclear program in Iran – leading either to an Iranian bomb or to war. The Obama administration believes that, by making this case, it can face down Israel’s formidable phalanx of supporters in Congress, traditionally marshalled by the American Israel Public Affairs committee.

The debate in Congress is likely to focus on whether the legislature will agree to a relaxation in sanctions – or whether, on the contrary, congressional leaders press for toughened sanctions that would undercut Obama’s negotiating stance.

While the President can relax some sanctions by executive order of the White House, sooner or later he is going to need Congress to go along with an Iran deal.

The administration’s confidence that it can win the argument over Iran is bolstered by an opinion poll, taken before the Geneva agreement was nailed down, which showed the American public was in favour of a nuclear deal with Iran by 56 per cent to 39 per cent.

The administration’s calculation is that the strong public desire to avoid further wars in the Middle East will override the public’s traditional sympathy with Israel and antipathy towards Iran.

AIPAC is a formidable lobbying organisation. But the recent fiasco over Obama’s request to Congress to approve missile strikes on Syria following the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime showed that the Israel lobby cannot always deliver victory on Capitol Hill. AIPAC lobbied hard in favour of strikes on Syria. But deep public opposition to military action weighed more heavily with Congress.

However, the analogies may not be as reassuring as the administration hopes. The route from a Syria vote to military action was clear and direct. By contrast, rejection of an Iran deal is not explicitly a vote for war. What is more, the fiasco over Obama’s health care reforms has driven the President’s approval ratings to new lows and weakened him.

If the Obama administration’s domestic political strategy over Iran is to work, its arguments in favour of the nuclear deal will have to be able to withstand the fierce scrutiny that the Israelis and others will subject them to.

So do the arguments stack up?

Broadly speaking, they do. Important weaknesses in the earlier draft of the agreement, a fortnight ago, have been addressed. In particular, development of Iran’s heavy water plant at Arak, south-west of Tehran – which potentially opened an alternative route to a plutonium bomb – is now to stop. Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, which is dangerously close to weapons-grade, will be diluted. Iran has agreed to an intrusive regime of inspections, which will make it much harder for it to violate a nuclear deal, as North Korea once did.

Iranian relief at this interim deal is palpable – and alarming to Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the reality is that Iranians have not yet got very much by way of sanctions relief. The biggest measures agreed are one-off releases of frozen assets. The main financial sanctions remain in place and continue to cost Iran dearly. The Obama administration has retained considerable leverage as the two sides move to negotiate a full deal over the next six months.

The Israelis point out that they are not the only US ally in the region that is deeply wary of this deal. Saudi Arabia is also clearly angry. But Saudi concern is only partly to do with the prospect of an Iranian bomb. More broadly, the Saudis are engaged in a struggle for regional and theological supremacy with Iran, which has led them to undermine peace efforts in Syria. While both Israel and Saudi Arabia are close American allies, their interests are not identical to those of the US.

As the Iran debate moves forward in America, it will take on a personal aspect. Obama and Netanyahu detest each other. Now they are about to stage a very public showdown. It would be a humiliation for the US President if his Iran policy is pulled apart in Congress at the behest of the Israelis. But the stakes are very high for Netanyahu and Israel, too – and victory could be as dangerous as defeat.

If a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue is blocked and war follows, Israel will be accused of dragging America into a conflict. But if Netanyahu confronts the Obama administration through the US Congress – and loses – the fabled power of the Israel lobby may never be quite the same again.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.