What Does Obama Have to Say About a Nuclear Iran?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Meets With Sens. McConnell And Reid On Capitol Hill

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

What do we lose and what do we risk? This is the basic question behind President Barack Obama’s strategy in negotiating with Iran, or as the New York Times calls it in an interview with the president, the “Obama Doctrine.”

The interview was a revealing one, and gave added insight into a topic that has led to a great deal of international tension over the last few weeks, particularly in the relationship between Obama, Congress, and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu — was just re-elected for his fourth term in a tight race. First, Netanyahu came to speak with Congress on the topic of the Iranian nuclear program and the upcoming negotiations, a talk the president was not invited to or asked about. Then there was the letter from congressional Republicans to Iran, warning that “While the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them,” and that if an agreement goes un-ratified, then “the next president could revoke such an agreement with the stroke of a pen.” Undoubtedly the letter was meant to act as a message to both the president and Iran against any nuclear treat that wouldn’t be fully backed by Republicans, but ultimately it did little more than undermine America’s negotiating position and make the U.S. look badly divided internally.

Now, with discussions underway, it’s obvious Netanyahu is uncomfortable with America’s decision to negotiate, but Obama’s strategy has a degree of flexibility to it that he says better reflects America’s position of power and strength; that while Israel is right to be more concerned and feel more deeply threatened by Iran, the U.S. may have a unique opportunity to avoid future conflict and control what form future conflict can take. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said in his interview with NYT writer Thomas L. Friedman at the White House. To illustrate his point, he compared Cuba and North Korea to Iran. “For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition,” said Obama, pointing out that if the change is disadvantageous for either party, the U.S. is by no means trapped in that decision — changes can be made.

North Korea, on the other hand, is an incredibly dangerous nation because of its nuclear capacity, something Obama describes as “the one thing that changes the equation” and is important enough to prevent elsewhere as to be “worth taking some risks.”

Iran isn’t Cuba’s international equivalent, not for Israel, and not for America — something Obama acknowledges in terms of security concerns. Which is why Israel is not treating the conversation like it’s low stakes, because especially in that region, it’s not. “I have to respect the fears the Israeli people have, but what I can say to them is: Number one, this is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” said Obama, “and number two, what we will be doing even as we enter into this deal is sending a very clear message to Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.” However, the cusp of Obama’s argument is that negotiation is preferable to an absence of negotiation and that inspections opened to Iran’s program would allow the world to keep it accountable. Netanyahu undertstandably points to a massive failure of inspections to curtail actions in the past, and argues that negotiation isn’t the problem. “I’m not trying to kill a deal. I’m trying to kill a bad deal,” he said, according to USA Today. Israel has a more detailed outline of its issues with the deal, focusing on a more extensive monitoring and inspection process given its dishonest and unforthcoming history.

American opinion, for its part, appears to fall somewhere in between the two leaders. More respondents to a Pew Research poll made ahead of the March 31 deadline approved of the negotiations, but only 27% said they felt Iranian leaders were serious about nuclear concerns, and 62% over 29% were in favor of Congress having the final say on the agreement. There is also a consistently pro-Israel response to in the polls both this year and last year.

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