Obama’s Super-Bowl Fumble on Iran

Exclusive: In a televised interview before the Super Bowl, President Obama had the chance to send a clear signal to Israel not to launch a preemptive war against Iran but instead offered ambiguous remarks that Israeli hard-liners might read as a partial green light, reports ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Before President Barack Obama’s interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, aired before the Super Bowl on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably hoped that, if Obama discussed Iran, he would give him the strong backing that Israeli leaders crave, freeing them to lash out at Iran — militarily, if they so choose.

Few could have been more keenly interested than he in what the President would say in an interview beamed to a hundred million American TV viewers. The problem was that Netanyahu could not have been completely sure of what to expect, given the confusing mixed signals coming out of Washington in the past several weeks.

President Obama with advisers in the Oval Office (White House photo by Pete Souza)

Some of those signals had been disquieting to Netanyahu and other Israeli hard-liners — for example, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying flat-out on Jan. 8 that Iran is NOT “trying to develop a nuclear weapon” – undercutting the key casus belli for war – and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey visiting Israel on Jan. 19, reportedly to repeat that in person and warn his hosts against provoking war with Iran.

In Netanyahu’s world, though, functionaries like Panetta and Dempsey are to be listened to politely but not taken all that seriously. It is what the American President says, in public, that may require more attention — and that is enhanced when he has the eyes and ears of multiple millions of super-prime-time viewers.

For Obama’s part, he was walking a political tightrope, having sent out two of his top national security aides to signal Israel that he doesn’t want a new war in the Middle East, but not wanting to give his hawkish Republican rivals new reasons to question his support for Israel.

Obama is reportedly hopeful that a peaceful settlement can still be reached over Iran’s nuclear program, but he understands that he has little margin for error in this high-wire act of political diplomacy – especially with so many crosswinds in an election year.

So, President Obama decided to forgo his best chance to inject a loud, unmistakable note of caution into recent warmongering over Iran, not only in Israel but also among influential neocons in the United States who have been jumping up and down, demanding another preemptive war over hypothetical WMDs, much as they did with Iraq.

When the interview was over, Netanyahu could breathe a sigh of relief. With Obama’s words and body language, there was nothing that would constitute a red light and some things that Netanyahu might interpret hopefully as nearly a green light.

Heightened Danger

Bottom Line: The way the President chose to handle Lauer’s leading questions on Israel-Iran tensions has brought the world closer to hostilities that would deeply destabilize not only that region but the world economy.

Lauer: [Regard] building tension between Israel and Iran:  It seems now the Israelis are signaling they may act, and conduct a strike inside Iran at their nuclear sites sooner than later. Do they have your full support for that raid?

Obama: I don’t think Israel has made a decision on what they need to do. I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program, and we have mobilized the international community in a way that is unprecedented. And they [the Iranians] are feeling the pinch, they are feeling the pressure.

But they have not taken the steps they need to take diplomatically; which is [for the Iranians] to say, “We will pursue peaceful nuclear power; we will not pursue a nuclear weapon.” Until they do so, I think Israel, rightly, is going to be very concerned, and we are as well.

Lauer: Has Israel promised you that they would give you advance warning to any such attack? Should they give you that warning?

Obama: I won’t go into the details. I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had.  And we are going to make sure we work in lockstep, as we proceed to try to solve this — hopefully diplomatically. …

Our preferred solution here is diplomatic; we’re going to keep on pushing on that front. But we’re not going to take any options off the table, and I’ve been very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race in a volatile region.

Delicate Positioning

Though the various elements of Obama’s delicate positioning are there – such as his desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis and his hope to avoid another war – there were also problematic references that reinforced the case for a preemptive Israeli strike, such as the President’s bizarre assertion that Iran must declare that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only – when that is exactly what Iran has been saying for years.

So, did Obama fumble or intentionally drop the ball? I think the latter, but it hardly matters. The consequences are pretty much the same either way.

The Israelis could not have been sure that Obama would decide to regurgitate their prevarication about Tehran’s notional nukes and contradict what his own Defense Secretary had said just four weeks ago, but that is what the President did.

What probably exceeded the Israeli leadership’s fondest expectations, though, was Obama’s pledge that in addressing Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, the U.S. will “work in lockstep” with Israel.

(“Lockstep?” What does Webster’s say of “lockstep?”

noun:

1 –  a mode of marching in step by a body of men going one after another as closely as possible;

2 –  a standard method or procedure that is mindlessly adhered to …

adjective:

–      in perfect, rigid, often mindless conformity or unison.)

Obama poured icing on Israel’s cake when he emphasized that Israeli-U.S. military and intelligence consultation has never been closer. The result? Up in smoke went any possibility of plausible denial of foreknowledge on Washington’s part, if — despite Panetta’s oft-repeated pleas that Israel and the U.S. must “work together” — Israel follows its customary practice of shunning any advance warning (much less requests for permission), in favor of seeking post-hoc forgiveness for launching armed attacks.

Carte Blanche for Israel?

For those of us who thought that the White House, recognizing the stakes involved and the benefit of keeping some space between Washington and Tel Aviv, had been trying to restrain the Israelis from attacking Iran, it is hard to fathom why Obama took the line he did.

His words were less surprising to those who have long since concluded that in the coming months he will choose to act out of a felt need to be at least in as much in “lockstep” with Israel as any Republican contender — never mind the risk of giving Netanyahu the impression that there are few if any restraints on what Israel might do to Iran.

It’s also possible that Obama has concluded that there isn’t much he can do to restrain Netanyahu who has strong reason to believe that whatever the President of the United States may want doesn’t really matter when the Congress and much of the Fawning Corporate Media are already in lockstep behind whatever Israel does.

Think back on when Netanyahu gave Obama a public tongue-lashing in the Oval Office and then went to Capitol Hill to receive a hero’s welcome from Republicans and Democrats who engaged in a bipartisan competition to see who could jump to their feet the fastest and applaud the loudest.

Whatever school of thought you may favor regarding Obama’s Iran “strategy,” let me suggest that you put yourself in Netanyahu’s shoes as he watches the pre-game interview. Do you agree that he is likely to come away with the idea that Obama has just applied a fresh coat of high-gloss paint to the box into which the Israelis and their supporters believe they have painted him?

Four months ago, I wrote an article entitled “Israel’s Window to Bomb Iran,” as the war-drumming on Iran began its crescendo. What has happened since has reinforced my assessment that:

“The key factor in any Israeli decision to send its aircraft and missiles to Iran is the degree to which Netanyahu and other hard-line Likud leaders believe that President Obama is locked into giving blanket support to Israel — particularly as Election 2012 draws near.

“The Israelis might well conclude that the formidable effectiveness of the Likud Lobby and kneejerk support of the U.S. Congress as well as still powerful neoconservatives in the Executive Branch (and on the opinion pages of major American newspapers) amount to solid assurance of automatic support for pretty much anything Israel decides to do.

“If Israel translates this into a green light to attack Iran, the rest of the world — even Washington — may get little or no warning.”

We need to add two important new factors since then:

1- Somehow the main focus has shifted from (a) how soon Iran could get a nuclear weapon to (b) how soon Israel is likely to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — whether they are shown to be related to nuclear weapons development, or not.

2- The evolving discourse in the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) has accustomed many Americans to assume that the Israelis would be within their rights to start a war on a convenient “IF” — i.e., IF the Iranians are working on a nuclear weapon. Never mind that Defense Secretary Panetta stated publicly just four weeks ago that they are NOT.

Of course, Panetta was simply reiterating the consensus conclusion of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that declared in 2007 that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and that it did not appear that such work had resumed. And even if you don’t want to believe the U.S. intelligence community and Panetta, there was the recent acknowledgement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the Mossad apparently has concluded the same thing.

Barak gave the interview on Jan. 18, the day before JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey arrived for talks in Israel:

Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?

Barak: … confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control [inspection] regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible.  Apparently that is not the case. …

Question: How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?

Barak: I don’t know; one has to estimate. … Some say a year, others say 18 months. It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the [UN International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection regime and stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, etc.

Why haven’t they [the Iranians] done that? Because they realize that … when it became clear to everyone that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, this would constitute definite proof that time is actually running out. This could generate either harsher sanctions or other action against them. They do not want that.

[For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “U.S./Israel: Iran NOT Building Nukes.”]

Yet, in the United States, the FCM’s constant repetition that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon – despite the intelligence consensus that Iran is NOT doing so – has created widespread acceptance for an Israeli preemptive war. In many circles, the idea is almost greeted with a yawn, with another yawn given to the notion that “of course” the U.S. would have to march “in lockstep” with Israel, if it got into a war.

A few days ago, I was given eight full TV minutes on RT to discuss whether it is a good idea to start wars in the subjunctive mood, and what I believe are Israel’s true aims vis-à-vis Iran. In my view, the principal aim, pure and simple, is regime change in Tehran, not the destruction of Iran’s notional nukes.

Remember, there have been U.N. inspectors crawling all over Iran, which has yet to be shown to be in violation of the basic Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed and Israel has not. (Another relevant fact that is typically left out of FCM articles about the theoretical possibility of Iran building one nuke is that Israel has a sophisticated – and undeclared – arsenal of some 300 nukes.)

Is it conceivable that this kind of information has been kept from President Obama?

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served for 30 years as an Army officer and a CIA intelligence analyst and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

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15 comments on “Obama’s Super-Bowl Fumble on Iran

  1. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The right response by the president is a statement that any attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the United States. The Church of the Savior is more concerned with the massacres of Christian communities native to middle east
    countries by Muslin governments and vigilantes.
    There is no recourse against religious fanaticism. There is no sanity in the convictions of religious beliefs.
    The United States is under greater threat from Christian sects who would exchange our civil liberties for the “values” of Christian morality and exclude those who disagree from government protection.
    It is this very conviction of superiority in Christian and Muslin sects hat has created millennia of wars and vengeance.
    The sane unbelievers have as much right to moral and ethical values without being a member of a political religious organization determined to overthrow the Constitution of the United States.

  2. charles sereno on said:

    With all due respect (a lot), I question whether Netanyahu bated his breath awaiting Obama’s speech. I’d guess his conversations with the messengers had settled the impasse.

  3. Speaking of the FCM, where has it been proven that the American people want a war-mongering president? Why all this worry about looking “weak”? Perhaps it would behoove these tunnel-visioned asses to find out that there are people out here who believe in peace and will back anyone who has the “courage” to stop all these hideous wars.

  4. rosemerry on said:

    “We will pursue peaceful nuclear power; we will not pursue a nuclear weapon.”
    How many times does Iran have to say this???? Iran wants a nukefree ME, and so does every other country around , except Israel, which wants to be the top dog.

    Obama should remember his job is as POTUS, NOT pres to help Israel or Pres of the Repugs or the rich 0.01% or the warmakers.

  5. michael walker on said:

    In a sane world, a US President would be highly motivated to be able to state, ” there were no wars on my watch”. In todays “up is down” world, a President is required to “prove his bonifides” by acting the part of “Commander in Chief”, regardless of the ensuing carnage and loss of innocent life. This appears to be the distinction between being the President of a republic, and the emperor of an empire. Unfortunately the die appears to have been cast.

  6. flat 5 on said:

    you’re so naive

  7. canary #8 on said:

    For the US to provoke and/or participate in another war in that area is totally INSANE! to say nothing of its morality. WE CANNOT AFFORD ANOTHER WAR. NO MORE WAR! NO MORE WAR! It is time to work for PEACE! And being bellicose Israel’s toady is not the road to peace.

  8. wolvedrive on said:

    so as an army intel analyst mr m, in yer opinion how is it possible that the us prez is in the dark on the hebrew wmd program, what is that wild as of a hunch based on, his pa pa pa poker face

  9. Pingback: Obama har i praktiken gett Israel grönt ljus « Vad händer i Mellanöstern idag?

  10. “What probably exceeded the Israeli leadership’s fondest expectations, though, was Obama’s pledge that in addressing Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, the U.S. will “work in lockstep” with Israel.”

    Or, the president is saying that he’s not about to abandon Israel. Or, he’s saying that Israel doesn’t get to set the pace of events, which would fit the realist maxim that you never let an ally draw you into a larger fight.

  11. The sad thing is that the more rational response comes from the supposedly more bellicose possible aggressor while the FCM and the sleeping American public yawn and cheer on The Bachelor.

  12. The Iranian regime is an enemy, a violent enemy, already at war with the United States.
    It has been in a state of war with the United States since its invasion of sovereign American territory in 1979.
    It has continued that war with attacks on Americans from the bombing of U.S. peacekeepers trying to protect innocent lives in Lebanon to the ongoing attacks on Americans, civilian and military, inside Iraq. They’re also in an ongoing war against Christians in Lebanon, and against Israel.
    These beasts have demonstrated their hostility to civilization repeatedly since they took over once-great Iran in 1979. They’re dominated by a fanatical subsect of Islam that believes in and eagerly anticipates an imminent apocalypse. Against such lunatics, the time tested strategem of Mutual Assured Destruction is worthless. The only option is to prevent their acquistion of nuclear weapons or, once they get them, to obliterate them entirely, which would obviously be a monumental tragedy.
    Therefore, prevention.
    …By sanctions or diplomacy, neither of which has accomplished a damn thing so far, or by force.
    The U.S. has the luxury of idly sitting back from its remote position on the other side of the world, with lots of territory and population so it can afford to lose a couple of cities. Israel does not have that luxury.
    Would Israeli action to disable Iran’s nuclear weapons program be preferable to American action? Israel’s tradition of acting ostentibly unilaterally without consultation would give the U.S. a feeble claim of deniability, which the craven politicians could seize. The repercussions in terms of terrorist attacks would probably be the same no matter who actually performs this rescue mission for the region, and the world. And an Israeli campaign would probably be less effective in the long term at disarming these troglodytes.
    Therefore, agreed.
    The Israelis should be actively and openly discouraged from attacking Iran.
    And the United States should do so instead. Probably immediately.
    This isn’t a “preemptive war.”
    This isn’t “starting a war.”
    This is an ancient principal commonly referred to as self defense.
    Can we shake hands with Lucifer and make “peace in our time?”
    I seem to remember that didn’t work out so well when last it was tried.

    • Let’s see…. We start a war with Iran. They sink tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz and disrupt the flow of oil from Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world. The price of oil doubles almost immediately to $200+ per barrel. This immediately grounds every airline in the U.S. because they cannot afford to purchase fuel at that price. Many airlines will then be forced into liquidation. Americans will then be paying $6.00+ per gallon for gasoline, sending the country back into deep recession and snuffing any signs of economic recovery.

      I cannot believe that these Israel-firsters want to put our country through such malaise. How very un-American of them!

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Wait a second…where did we leave out the part about the CIA overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Iran, and installing the Shah, who terrorized his country until they kicked his ass out? And weren’t we selling arms to Iran to get money to prop up a bunch of thugs in…Nicaragua, I think it was. And how about that Iranian airliner we shot down. That was just an accident, wasn’t it. Too bad, they must have had it coming. Especially after forcing Saddam Hussein to waste all that poison gas on Iranian soldiers. By the way, didn’t we sell Saddam that poison gas? Nah, couldn’t be. We would never do something like that. But I am curious to know what sovereign territory of the United States they invaded. Were you talking about the embassy? Gee whiz, why didn’t we just nuke them then, when we had a good excuse. Couldn’t be that our economy can’t survive without all that petrodollar activity, could it? Some countries basically just have more to offer than meets the eye. But I can think of at least one that has nothing U.S.A. really can’t do without.

  13. • Warning Iran Against Hitting ‘Soft’ American Targets
    The Obama administration should deem an attack on a synagogue or embassy as tantamount to a military attack on the U.S.
    By ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ
    The Iranian government has now made crystal clear that it is at war not only with Israel and Zionism but with Jewish communities throughout the world. As Iran’s Rafah news website—identified with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—threatened last month, Iran plans to “take the war beyond the borders of Iran, and beyond the borders of the region.” And last week an Iranian News Agency headline declared that “Israeli people must be annihilated.”
    These and other recent threats have, according to news reports, led Israeli and American authorities to believe that Iran is preparing attacks against Israeli embassies and consulates world-wide, as well as against Jewish houses of prayer, schools, community centers, restaurants and other soft targets.
    If this were to happen, it would not be the first time that Iranian agents have bombed or attacked Israeli and Jewish targets in distant countries. Back in 1992, Iranian agents blew up the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, many of whom were children. The Argentine government conducted a thorough criminal investigation and indicted several Iranian officials, but those officials were well beyond the reach of Argentine legal authorities and remain at liberty.
    The U.S. government should deem any Iranian attack against Israeli or Jewish soft targets in America to be an armed military attack on the U.S.—to which the U.S. will retaliate militarily at a time and place of its choosing. Washington should not treat such an attack as the Argentine authorities did, merely as a criminal act.
    Under international law, an attack on an embassy is an attack both on the embassy’s country and on the country in which the embassy is located. And under the charter of the United Nations, an attack against a nation’s citizens on its territory is an act of armed aggression that justifies retaliatory military action.
    An attack on an American synagogue is no different than an attack on the World Trade Center or on American aviation. We correctly regarded those attacks as acts of war committed by al Qaeda and facilitated by the government of Afghanistan, and we responded militarily. All American citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, are equally entitled to the protection of the American military.
    U.S. retaliation could take the form of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Though such action might be pre-emptive in its intention, it would be reactive as a
    matter of international law, since it would be in response to an armed attack by Iran. It wouldn’t require Security Council approval, since Article 51 of the U.N. Charter explicitly preserves the right of member nations to respond to any armed attack.
    This is not to argue against such an attack if Iran decides not to go after soft American targets. It may become necessary for our military to target Iranian nuclear facilities if economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts do not succeed and if the Iranian government decides to cross red lines by militarizing its nuclear program and placing it in deep underground bunkers. But the legal justification for such an attack would be somewhat different. It would be predominantly pre-emptive or preventive, though it would have reactive elements as well, since Iran has armed our enemies in Iraq and caused the death of many American soldiers.
    If Israel were compelled to act alone against Iran’s nuclear program, it too would be reacting as well as pre-empting, since Iran has effectively declared war against the Jewish state and its people. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently confirmed Iran’s role as Hezbollah’s active partner in its war against Israel, claiming that it “could not have been victorious” in its 2006 war without the military support of Tehran. Iran’s ongoing support of
    Hezbollah and Hamas, coupled with its direct participation in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, constitute sufficient casus belli to justify a reactive Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.
    The best outcome, of course, would be to deter Iran from both foreign aggression and domestic nuclearization by making the costs too high, even for the most zealous or adventurous Iranian leaders. But for deterrence to succeed, where sanctions and other tactics appear to be failing, the threat of military action must be credible. Right now it is not, because Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other administration officials are sending mixed signals, not only with regard to the U.S. but also with regard to Israel.
    The administration must speak with an unambiguous and credible voice that leaves no doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders that America won’t tolerate attacks on our citizens or a nuclear-armed Iran. As George Washington wisely counseled in his second inaugural address, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
    Mr. Dershowitz is a law professor at Harvard. His latest book is “Trials of Zion” (Grand Central Publishing, 2010).