The Obama-Netanyahu Showdown

President Obama has been reduced to asking Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for permission to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, recognizing Netanyahu’s power over the U.S. Congress. But Netanyahu’s determination to block any deal has left Obama traversing a difficult negotiating path, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The latest public spat between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government centers on Israeli leaks of details of the U.S. negotiating position in the Iran nuclear talks and the U.S. consequently reducing its consultation with Israel on the talks. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius divulged some of the details of the quarrel this week.

It involves the alleged leak to an Israeli journalist of an Obama administration proposal that would “allow Iran to enrich uranium with 6,500 or more centrifuges as part of a final deal,” according to Ignatius. The immediate issue was White House anger over Netanyahu’s taking advantage of the information on the U.S. negotiating stance to interfere – again – in U.S. domestic politics.

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office, Oct 1, 2014. The meeting was described as chilly, reflecting the strained relationship between the two leaders. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office, Oct 1, 2014. The meeting was described as chilly, reflecting the strained relationship between the two leaders. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But the Ignatius account also provides further evidence that the Obama administration still feels it necessary to clear every significant diplomatic move on Iran with Netanyahu, whose openly declared aim is to prevent any agreement from being reached.

The real reason for President Barack Obama’s continued appeasement of Netanyahu on the talks is that the White House believes Israel’s minions in Congress pose a serious threat to the administration’s diplomatic strategy on Iran.

To understand the politics surrounding the latest proposal it is necessary to go back to the basic facts about Iran’s enrichment capacity and the negotiations on that issue. The first basic fact is that Iran’s installed capacity is nearly 20,000 centrifuges, of which half have never actually gone into operation. So when Iran proposes a total of 9,400 centrifuges, as Zarif did last July in an interview with the New York Times, it represented a 50 percent cut in that total enrichment capacity.

But U.S. and European officials have studiously avoided any reference to the nearly 10,000 installed centrifuges that have not been operating. Their statements to the press insisting that Iran has not shown political will have pretended that those centrifuges don’t exist. Thus they have referred to the proposed Iranian reduction to 9,400 as merely maintaining “the status quo,” as the International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez reported last August.

The Obama administration has justified its demands for much deeper cuts in the number of centrifuges by citing the need to provide a sufficiently lengthy “breakout” timeline. That arbitrary metric has nothing to do with the reality of nuclear policy, since it posits a scenario that even the former WMD adviser to Obama, Gary Samore, admits is completely implausible.

The Obama administration claims that it needs a year or more in case of an Iranian decision to enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels in this “breakout” scenario so the President has enough time to fashion a response. But the idea that the President of the United States needs a year to decide what to do about an open violation of the agreement by Iran is so far-fetched as to suggest that the supposed need for a one-year “breakout timeline” is actually a cover for the real strategy underlying the U.S. negotiating position.

The reality is that the 9,400 level Iran is proposing would give Obama plenty of time to make a decision. Two graphs accompanying an article by David Albright and Olli Heinonen, the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy director-general for safeguards, last June shows that fact very clearly.

Assuming no stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, and a reduction of the Iranian low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to zero, according to those graphs, the breakout time for 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges would be about nine or 10 months.

Iran had already agreed to get rid of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium and agreed last autumn to reduce its LEU stockpile to a low level by shipping it to Russia to be converted into fuel assemblies for Bushehr, provided that other elements of the agreement were acceptable. Those graphs provide perspective on the proposals the United States has been making since the start of the negotiations and the political considerations that have been shaping the U.S. approach.

In the initial May 2014 draft agreement, the P5+1 demanded that Iran agree to a cap of 1,500 centrifuges, representing a reduction of 92 percent from the existing Iranian enrichment capacity. But diplomats apparently suggested privately to Vaez that they might ultimately settle for a 6,500 cap.

In July, U.S. and European officials in Vienna succeeded in convincing Vaez of the ICG that their “margin of maneuver” had been reduced during the spring and summer, and that the 6,500 centrifuges the ICG had proposed in May was no longer possible. Capping the number of centrifuges at about 4,000, Vaez wrote, was a political imperative for the United States and its European allies. A glance at the graph shows that a reduction to 4,000 would increase the breakout time to somewhere between 21 and 28 months.

A semi-official Iranian source revealed in early November that the Obama administration had just offered 6,000 as the total to be allowed in the comprehensive agreement – a total that would be equivalent to 12 to 15 months on the graph. Now we know from the story of the Israeli leak that the Obama administration was ready to offer 6,500 in January.

That 6,500 may not be the final U.S. offer. The Obama administration has never adopted a firm final numerical demand for the cap on centrifuges numbers going into the negotiations, according to a U.S. source who has been briefed on its negotiating calculus. But the administration has not had any incentive to be more forthcoming on centrifuge numbers, as discussed earlier in this space, because the status quo gives the U.S. what it needs most.

And Washington is convinced that Iran is playing a weak negotiating hand, because the sanctions and the steep plunge in the price of oil have put intense pressure on the Rouhani government to reach an agreement.

That same perception has also led to a U.S. position on lifting sanctions that would allow it to hold on to leverage over Iran through sanctions until late in the implementation of the agreement, even though Iran would be expected to cut the number of centrifuges immediately.

But the Obama administration has yet another reason for making no real effort to accommodate Iran’s political problems, which brings us back to the significance of the latest Obama-Netanyahu spat. It is the fear that proposing anything less than a one-year breakout timeline would cause Congress to vote to reject the agreement.

According to the well-informed U.S. source, the administration is worried that if Congress rejects a final deal it will be perceived by the rest of the world as an indication that the U.S. was responsible for the failure of the talks. That fear – and the determination of the Obama administration to avoid having to bear the onus for diplomatic failure – gives the extremist opposition in Congress and its Israeli sponsors a veto power over the administration’s negotiating stance. And that explains why the administration approached Netanyahu, hat in hand, in January to seek his blessing for its most recent offer to Iran.

The irony in this situation, therefore, is that Obama’s own diplomatic gamesmanship, aimed at gaining the upper hand over Iran, has in the end handed Netanyahu, whose demands on Iran he rejected decisively in 2012, a new and powerful form of leverage on US Iran policy.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story first appeared at Middle East Eye.]

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9 comments for “The Obama-Netanyahu Showdown

  1. neoconned
    February 24, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    It has been this way for a long time. Recall the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. LBJ himself stopped the US Navy from defending the ship. He was probably afraid that AIPAC wouldn’t like it.

    Soon the last Holocaust survivor will die. The motiviation for mindless support of Israel as reparation for allowing the Nazis to murder Jews (and others, lets not forget!) with impunity will thus end. Netanyahu is thus running out of time for him to join the Harry Truman Human Vaporization and Desert Sand Glass Blowing club.

    • Ia mhu Man
      March 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      10/10

  2. Gregory Kruse
    February 23, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    I’m sure the Institute for Science and International Security is mortified by the co-optation of their initials.

  3. Ali Sadra
    February 22, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Iran ‘negotiating’ with the US is like the lamb negotiating with the wolf!

    Iran must stop wasting its time and resources. Iran must leave the IAEA which is nothing but a ball and chain around its neck.

    How did the people of Iran boot out the treacherous foreign puppet shah? By negotiating with the US?

    • Peter Loeb
      February 24, 2015 at 7:47 am

      To Ali Sadra:

      THE LAMB NEGOTIATING WITH THE WOLF

      I agree wholehearted with your comment. Is the phrase “the lamb negotiating with
      the wolf” a proverb? In any case it is an excellent one.

      [It also fits Israel’s reiterated claims—empty of course— that they want
      “peace” and “negotiations”.As to Iran’s leaving the IAEA, I have no comment. Would it not
      be preferable to insist that Israel subject all–ALL— its nuclear sites and other sites
      for the manufacture of WMD’s (missiles,drones etc.) to RANDOM inspection and also
      that Israel sign—and ratify—PRN???

      —–Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Peter Loeb
    February 22, 2015 at 7:33 am

    OUT ON A LIMB

    The US will never contradict Israel, Zionism and its results all of which leaves us abolutely
    nowhere. As the saying in the US has it: “The tail is wagging the dog.”

    Gareth Porter’s reports are always worth reading.

    In the case of Iran, it is in my opinion absurd to consider the talks as any kind of “negotiation”
    at all. There cannot be any meaningful “negotiation” until Israel, the most powerful nuclear
    nation in the Middle East, has signed the PRN (which Iran long ago) and agreed to random
    inspection of all its nuclear sites on a random basis by the IAEA. In addition Israel
    must agree to disarm all such(overt and covert) sites as well as sites for the making of WMD’s (eg drones, missiles etc.). This must be preceded by a UN examination such as was proposed
    at the UN General Assembly recently and was opposed by—the US and Israel,

    Iran wants the elimination of US sanctions. This is not politically possible given US domestic
    political realities and no other possibility would be acceptable to Iran also for political as
    well as financial reasons.

    One can safely say that there will never be any resolution since no real “negotiations” are
    taking place. US Secretary of State insists that Iran “get serious” which means that Iran
    accede to US-Israeli hegemonic control.

    —-PeterLoeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Akbar Montaser
    February 22, 2015 at 1:02 am

    As usual, Mr. Porter has inscribed an excellent article.

    The key question is who the hell is the United States President? As it appears it is the Prime Minister of Israel who is a war criminal. Yet, shamefully the Speaker has invited a nasty to address the joint session of Congress.

    Certainly, the majority of Representative and Senators are scared to speak against Israel or its Prime Minister. Those on Capital Hill who protested the invitation by our spineless Speaker only request that the warmongering speech be postponed. No one in Capital Hill will have the courage to say why must we devoted to a racist country, especially an occupier of Palestine.

    The President knows the US would be foolish to assault Iran. The United States assailed Iraq, a country of 33 million, 13 years ago. We are still fighting after slaying over a million Iraqis, nearly 5000 Americans, traumatizing half the population of Iraq, creating 500,000 American veterans with mental ailment, with 22 committing suicide each day.

    Iran has a population of 76.4 million intelligent and nearly all peaceful people. Iran is the only Island of stability in Middle East. If the United States embarks on any adventurous policy on Iran, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, US will only realize that Iraq and Afghanistan represented garden parties compared to any war on Iran.

    Israel is a bigoted country. Israel and Saudi Arabia have created more foes for us in the world than any foe or enemy. Importantly, Israeli warmongering policies are against our national interests.

    Our support for Israel has already created a tornado of problems for us. Islam is the world’s second major religion. Based a 2011 study, Islam has 1.57 billion devotees, making up over 23% of the world populace. The Pew Research Center in 2010 reports there are 49 Muslim-majority nations. Why must we support a racist nation, making 1.57 billion people our foes? It does not make sense.

    The President must seek the assistance of the nation in muzzling the Israeli PM. He is a threat to the world.

    • g
      February 22, 2015 at 7:27 am

      wtf

    • Gregory Kruse
      February 23, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      Of course he does, tarob.

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