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Phyllis Bennis: Obama distances US from Netanyahu’s rhetoric and prepares for 2012 elections

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

And in Washington, President Obama met with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.

And now joining us from Washington to talk about this meeting is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and amongst her many books is Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


JAY: So this was AIPAC weekend—the major pro-Israel lobby group, as they more or less call themselves. President Obama spoke, and Netanyahu will speak Monday night. What do you make of this meeting and where we’re at on the Iran issue?

BENNIS: Well, I think we don’t know yet exactly what happened at the meeting. And, of course, what happens in private is very important, but what is perhaps more important is what happens publicly. And that goes to President Obama’s speech in front of the 12,000 pro-Israel activists that were present for the AIPAC meeting, along with some protesters.

But that was a very interesting development, because what we saw was a great deal of very tough rhetoric. It was sort of red meat to Israel’s biggest backers. President Obama used very strong language about Israel. He talked about we’ve got Israel’s back. And he used very strong language about Iran. He talked about how the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; a nuclear-armed Iran is counter to our interests.

But he was very careful to break very clearly, if you were watching for it, from the Israeli position. The Israeli position is to demand U.S. backing or U.S. leadership or U.S. participation in a military strike against Iran if Iran reaches the point of nuclear capability, which Israel says it’s already reached. The U.S. doesn’t agree with that. The U.S. position is—we’re still, unfortunately, talking about the possibility of a nuclear strike—. Sorry. The U.S. position is different than that. The U.S. position (unfortunately, still talking about a military strike) is that it would not be used unless Iran actually achieves a nuclear weapon. That’s way different than nuclear weapons capacity or capability.

JAY: Yeah. In fact, they’ve sort of—they’ve made the red line a decision to make a nuclear weapon, and they’ve said they’ve not yet decided to make that.

BENNIS: Well, I’m not even sure that decision is quite as clear. In President Obama’s actual speech, he talked about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. He used that word twice, “obtaining” a nuclear weapon, which is a very long stretch from the Israeli view that nuclear capability by itself is enough to trigger a military response. And, of course, they say that they’ve already got it, because capability just means the ability to enrich uranium and scientists who know something. And, of course, we know that at least five scientists have been assassinated already.

JAY: Now, Panetta, when he was on TV a couple of weeks ago on Face the Nation, he seemed to make this point: they have not yet decided. So this is about this issue of reaching a certain level of capability and not making the decision to take the next step to really have a program, which many people think if they actually made, quote-unquote, such a decision, they’d have to actually get out of the NPT, ’cause at that point the inspectors would know what was going on. And they’ve not done any of that.

BENNIS: That’s exactly right. And I think the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, as you mentioned, is a very important part of this debate. When Defense Secretary Panetta spoke of Iran not having made the decision yet to pursue a nuclear weapon, I think that was very important, but not because even that would amount to a U.S. red line, but just because I think it was an additional point Panetta was making to distance the U.S. from this Israeli claim that mere capability was somehow enough, because it matched further statements that have come from the defense secretary, the head of the CIA, the national security agency, all 16 of the U.S. intelligence agencies who said there is no weapon, there is no weapon being produced, there is no weapons program, and they haven’t even made a decision to do so. So it was a series of steps saying, we are way far away from Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.

JAY: And one hears this discourse in Israel as well, from former Shin Bet leaders, Mossad leaders.


JAY: It’s not like there’s some unified view in Israel. Far from it. There’s lots of voices there saying, one, the same kind of issue, there’s not yet a weapons program. And you’re also hearing, increasingly, voices that say, well, even if they had a weapon, it’s not really an existential threat anyway. So—.

BENNIS: But we’re not, unfortunately, hearing enough voices saying it’s not an existential threat. I think there is a vastly overrated but existing Israeli majority that believes—in my view completely wrongly—believes that Iran with anything close to a nuclear weapon or a nuclear capacity, or maybe even without all those things, somehow represents an existential threat. And the reason has to do with propaganda.

In the Israeli scene it’s very similar to what we saw in the United States in the run-up to the war in Iraq, where we were being told over and over again by propagandists, who happen to be the president, vice president, the secretary of defense, etc., that Saddam Hussein’s government had these alleged weapons of mass destruction. The big difference in the U.S. this time around is that while there are voices out there saying Iran is making a nuclear weapon, maybe Iran already has a nuclear weapon, no one in power in saying that. They are saying Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, does not have a nuclear weapons program, etc.

In Israel I think it’s a little bit different, because there is a threat to Israel. It’s not an existential threat to Israelis or to the land and people of Israel; it’s a threat to Israel’s current nuclear monopoly. That’s what an Iran with anything close to nuclear capacity would threaten. Right now, Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the Middle East—it’s the only one with a nuclear arsenal, of somewhere between two and four hundred high-density nuclear bombs. They’re not under inspection by the United Nations. They are not—we don’t know what kind of shape they’re in, if they’re already leaching into the soil. No one knows what kind of shape they’re in. We just know they’re there. That gives Israel enormous power as being the only nuclear weapons state. They have a nuclear monopoly. It’s that monopoly that would be threatened, not the lives of Israelis by [incompr.]

JAY: Right. Now, there’s an opinion piece in Haaretz today which says what’s really going on here is a theater that’s taking place about the U.S. elections, that Netanyahu really wants to see the Republicans (which are his closer ideological-political allies) in the White House, and he wants—and there’s this sort of game being played to create conditions for the Republicans to accuse Obama of being weak on Iran. And this actually has maybe more to do with the American elections than it has to do with anything. What do you make of that?

BENNIS: It has a lot to do with the U.S. elections. And it’s a very dangerous move, because aside from the assessment being made all the time in the Obama campaign, in the White House, and elsewhere about what would be the effect on the elections if Israel launches some kind of a strike and demands U.S. backing if the U.S. says yes, if the U.S. says no, but one of the other aspects is what happens if there is some kind of a military strike. The price of gasoline—which is being grounded far more in issues of fear and instability than it is in actual access to oil—the price of gasoline goes up to $5 a gallon in October, a month before the election. That would probably guarantee a Republican victory. That would be very nice for the Netanyahu regime, which is indeed looking to closer allies among the Republicans now. It’s been a big shift in U.S. support for Israel. Once upon a time it was Democrats who were the main supporters of Israel. Now by far the Republicans are the greater supporters.

JAY: Well, greater supporters of Likud and Netanyahu, at any rate. Obama certainly, and the Democrats, have all their ties to Israel. It’s just they ain’t the ones that are controlling the power in Israel right now. No?

BENNIS: Absolutely.

JAY: Yeah. Now, the new head of the IAEA today actually made a statement saying that he is—they’re concerned that Iran seems to be enriching more uranium than necessary for a civilian program and that there are still unanswered questions. His timing for the release of this statement’s rather interesting, ’cause it comes right on the same day as the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. What do you make of this recent trip of the IAEA to Iran?

BENNIS: Yeah, I think that the—there’s no question that the current leadership of the IAEA is much more amenable to reflecting certain U.S. concerns and certain Western interests, if you will, in the Iranian nuclear program than was the previous director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian who won the Nobel Prize for his independence there. I don’t think the current leader, the current general director of the IAEA, is likely to win any prizes for independence. But I think that what’s—.

JAY: Well, sorry to interrupt you, but if they can give Obama a Nobel Peace Prize, who knows?

BENNIS: Indeed. I’m not going there. They gave one to Henry Kissinger, too.

I think that we do have to look at what’s going on in Iran. There are unanswered questions. That part is true. But the notion that somehow they are enriching more than they need, who’s to say what Iran needs? I mean, ironically—I don’t know, Paul, if all of our listeners are aware that it was back in 1974 and ’75 under the Shah of Iran—backed, of course, by the United States—it was the U.S. that urged—for a while unsuccessfully—urged the Shah of Iran to begin a nuclear power program. And the Shah came back and said, why would we want nuclear power when we’ve got all this oil? And the answer from the U.S. at that time was you should be diversifying your sources of energy; the oil isn’t going to last forever; you should build nuclear power plants so you’ll have a future. Right? Nuclear power, as we know, when it gets damaged, lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. So the Iranians, in thrall to the United States, went ahead and began a nuclear power program. And they’re doing the same thing now. They’re enriching to 5 percent for power use and to 20 percent for research and medical use. Twenty percent is the same kind of uranium enrichment that’s used in this country for producing the same thing, radioactive isotopes for medical use, for treating cancer patients.

JAY: Yeah, there is a little story which we’re going to follow up more on, so I can’t say too much about it, but apparently the company that produces as much as 50 percent, if I have this right, of the world’s medical isotopes is in Canada, and they’re actually planning to stop doing it in a couple of years. So there is a general issue of how to deal with medical isotopes around the world. I can’t draw a direct line between that and what the Iranians are doing, but we will look into it. Yeah.

BENNIS: Absolutely not. But I think there is a broader question about the independence of access to resources. And certainly it’s one thing for Iran to say, well, we want and we have a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to peaceful uses of nuclear power. We also want the right to enrich our own uranium. We don’t want to have to depend on the so-called Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is dominated by the U.S., Canada, and other Western countries. We want to be able to produce our own uranium for our own peaceful purposes. They have the right to do that, too. So I think, you know, a country that has been demonized and isolated as much as Iran has been for the last 30 years, it’s hardly surprising, it’s hardly surprising that they are trying to get an independent way of producing their nuclear power.

JAY: So the argument you would get from the Israelis is that this leap from capability to weaponization is not that big a leap, that when you get to capability—and again, it’s a little ambiguous, but if you know how to enrich uranium and you have the technology of making the bomb, that it’s not that big a jump. And so—.

BENNIS: It’s really not the case. I mean, there’s two ways to look at it. On the one hand, capability means are you able to in theory. In theory it’s not that big a jump, if you have scientists who know what they’re doing, to enrich uranium to 5 percent for power or to 20 percent for medical isotopes. Then, yeah, you know how to make a nuclear bomb. It’s the same technology.

It doesn’t mean you can do it. Number one, you need massively more access to already enriched uranium. You need thousands of these machines to enrich the uranium, which are very delicate, very hard to produce, and very hard to keep working. And crucially, you need all of the weaponization capacity, you need the triggers, you need the ability to produce them in the shape of a bomb. It’s not like just some old uranium that’s been enriched suddenly becomes a bomb because you look at it funny. It’s a huge process that takes months and years. So the notion that there’s no leap, there’s no difference between capability and production, is simply not the case.

JAY: What do you make of President Obama’s comment in the speech to AIPAC, which I thought was kind of interesting, where he said this loose talk of war is actually helping Iran because it’s raising the price of oil? And—which is a very interesting thing, because there may be some truth to that. But, of course, it’s not only Iran that’s benefiting from such a high price of oil.

BENNIS: It’s Russia and it’s a number of other countries. I think that what that goes to is what we were talking about earlier. President Obama quite clearly does not want to go to war against Iran, particularly before his reelection bid. There is the question of what will happen to the price of oil. There’s the question of what will be the response of people in this country who are not so keen on going to war again against another Muslim country in the Middle East that produces oil. You know, this is not such a popular thing to think about.

So I think when President Obama said at the AIPAC conference, we have to stop this loose talk about attacking Iran, I think that was very important in that messaging. He’s sending a message. Don’t get reckless here. Don’t keep talking about this. It’s dangerous in terms of price of oil. It’s dangerous also in terms of gearing up support inside Iran—although he didn’t talk about this. Clearly this helps the regime in Iran to get more support by a population that is outraged at how their regime is disrespected and talked about by President Obama or others. So it’s putting a stop to all that as best he can in this rhetorical way.

Now, one wishes that he had gone further and said, we will not use military force against Iran, we will not back up a reckless Israeli strike, we will not be bamboozled into this. It is not in our interest, and we won’t do it. Now, one wishes he had said that to AIPAC. That was never going to happen. But given that that was never going to happen, it was quite significant that President Obama distanced U.S. policy as strongly as he did from the Israeli version of what would be a red line in Iran.

JAY: Right. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.